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Campaign welcomes Government moves on local authority openness

Local authorities will in future have to meet in public when discussing ‘key decisions’ following a last-minute concession by the Government last night.

A significant victory for greater openness was achieved last night during the Lords debate on the Local Government Bill when the Government conceded that new cabinet-style ‘executives’ created by the Bill should meet in public when discussing ‘key decisions’ to be taken by mayors, individual executive members or officers. Previously the Government had proposed that meetings should only be open if the decision would be taken by the executive collectively.

“This is significant progress,” said Andrew Ecclestone of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, “as many vital decisions will in future be taken by individuals rather than in meetings. We were concerned that the move from open committee meetings to the new executives should not lead to a loss of openness. The Bill could have taken us backwards by removing the right to attend meetings. The Government has now agreed to change the regulations so councils cannot deny people access simply by delegating the decision to an individual.”

The rights of access to information and meetings under the new arrangements have been significantly improved during the passage of the Bill following a sustained campaign by concerned organisations. Initially the Government proposed to remove existing rights of access to papers before a decision was taken, stating that “a requirement to publish papers before a meeting might once again drive majority groups into private discussions outside the structures of the council” 1

Following sustained pressure from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Friends of the Earth, the Society of Editors and the Local Government Information Unit, with all-party support in Parliament led by Don Foster MP (Liberal Democrats) in the Commons and Baronness Hamwee (Liberal Democrats) in the Lords, the Government has improved the Bill and published draft regulations and guidance which will require local authorities to:

  • Produce monthly updated rolling ‘Forward Plans’ detailing decisions to be taken and documents relating to them.
  • Give at least three days advance access to reports, agendas and background papers for decisions.
  • Meetings at which a ‘key decision’ is to be discussed or taken must be open to the public – regardless of whether it will be taken by the meeting or by an individual.
  • After a decision, meetings and individuals must produce a record of the decision which includes the reason for the decision and the alternative options considered and rejected.
  • The government have agreed to undertake a review of the exemptions from public rights of access to meeting and information contained in Schedule 12A of the 1972 Act.
  • The government have agreed to amend the 1972 Act to require officers to list the background papers to their reports in the reports themselves.
  • The government are to take the power to require authorities to make papers available for longer than the existing ‘three clear days’ before the meeting, and have said they will consult on whether to do this.

Campaign spokesman, Andrew Ecclestone, said, “Our remaining area of concern is how ‘key decisions’ will be defined.” The regulations will differentiate between ‘key decisions’ and ‘other decisions’, with the improved access rights applying only to ‘key decisions’. At present the government’s draft regulations specify that decisions become ‘key’ when proposing expenditure or cuts above a certain amount, or the signing of a contract worth more than a set level. However, at present the government intends local authorities to decide for themselves the threshold amount which will make a decision ‘key’. “We believe this will lead to arbitrary variations in openness between authorities – even between neighbouring councils. It cannot be right that citizens’ rights to be informed should vary depending on where they live, and we will continue to urge the government to define ‘key decisions’ more tightly.” said Mr. Ecclestone.

Note
1. Government response to the report of the Joint Committee on the draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill, Cm 4529, December 1999, paragraph 2.99

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