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Availability Of Reports Discussed At Local Authority Meetings

Volume 987: debated on Thursday 3 July 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

(1) In the first line of section 228(1) of the Local Government Act 1972 the words "and local authority committee" shall be inserted after the word "authority" and before the word "shall".

(2) The following subsections shall be inserted after subsection (1) of section 228 of the Local Government Act 1972—

'(1A)—(a) Copies of any reports being discussed at local authority meetings and local authority committee meetings, and which are considered during any part of such meetings to which the public are admitted shall be made available to the public present;
(b) any such reports covered by paragraph (a) above shall be open to the inspection of any local government elector for the area of the authority and any such local government elector may make a copy of or extract from such reports.
(1B)—(a) any member of a local authority or a local authority committee may inspect and make a copy of or an extract from any interim report, memoranda, letters or other documents relating to any matter on the agenda of the local authority committee;
(b) any such interim report, memoranda, letters or other documents covered by paragraph (a) above concerning any item taken in any part of the agenda of the local authority or local authority committee from which the public have been excluded, shall be subject to the same confidentiality as that part of the agenda.
(1C)—(a) any local government elector for the area of a local authority may inspect and make a copy of or an extract from any interim report, memoranda, letters or other documents relating to any item that appears on the public part of the agenda of any local authority meeting or local authority committee meeting, unless the local authority committee has ordered that any such interim report, memoranda, letters or other documents shall not be open to the public;
(b) The local authority committee may only make such an order as referred to in paragraph (a) above on the grounds that public access to the interim reports, memoranda, letters or other documents would be an invasion of personal privacy or detrimental to the public interest, but not on the grounds that such public access would be politically embarrassing for the council or any member of the council."

(3) The 1960 Public Bodies (Admissions to Meetings) Act shall apply to meetings of local authority sub-committees as well as to meetings of local authority committees and meetings of the local authority itself.—[ Mr. Allan Roberts.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause does five things. Generally, it concerns open government in local authorities. I imagine that all believers in local government believe that local authorities should practise open government. The new clause also commends itself to those like myself who want to see revitalised local democracy, more powers for local government and freedoms restored to local government. If we want to give local government a significant role in society, that government should be as open as possible so that the electors and their elected representatives can participate fully in the decision-making process and enable the local authorities to be truly democratic.

First, the new clause gives electors the right to inspect the committee minutes after a committee meeting has taken place. At present anyone can attend a public meeting of a local authority committee, but if he is ill or at work and unable to attend the committee he does not have the right, in law, to inspect the minutes of that committee the next day. The clause safeguards matters that are taken during private sessions on the agenda, because of confidentiality. One would not expect those minutes to be available the next day. If it is right that the public can attend a committee meeting, surely they should have the right to inspect the minutes the next day. Some local authorities allow this and some refuse. This new clause would make it a right in law.

Secondly, the new clause gives local government electors the right to see copies of reports that are discussed in the public part of the agenda, while and as they are being discussed. Again, some good local authorities make these reports available to the public, but there is no right for the public to have them. People can sit at the back of a public committee meeting entirely in the dark, not knowing what is going on because they do not have the right to those documents.

Thirdly, the clause gives councillors free access to interim reports and internal memoranda. Fourthly, it gives electors the right to see interim reports and memoranda for the public part of the agenda. This is very important if the public and the councillors are to see what is taking place.

Elected members and the public are often presented with a report produced by a local authority's management team—a group of chief officers—the differences of opinion between the chief officers and the other officers in that Department having been thrashed out and a compromise reached. All that the elected officers and the public see are recommendations based on the compromise. They have no access to the process of argument. If the public and councillors had access to interim reports and memoranda they could truly participate in the debate.

5 pm

This clause would open up local authority sub-committees to the public. At present, by setting up a sub-committee a local authority can exclude the press and public. That ploy is used by many local authorities to circumvent Parliament's intention in the Local Government Act 1972 that committee meetings should be open to the public. When I was a member of the city of Manchester authority we had a secretarial and services sub-committee of the policy committee which consisted of all members of the policy committee. It met in private to decide what receptions and functions the council should engage in.

Planning applications have to be on a public register and open to public scrutiny, but local authorities often have discussions in development sub-committees that the public cannot attend. Such practices bring local government into disrepute. The clause would not destroy the right of a councillor to move a motion to the effect that there be a private committee session because of confidentiality.

Finally, the new clause would give councillors free access to local authority interim reports and internal memoranda. I wish to give an example of a property acquired by the Greater London Council, where I believe that there has not only been maladministration but fraud in connection with contracts for modernisation and improvement of properties acquired.

No. 19 Topsam Road, SW17 was acquired by the GLC in January 1977. The history of that house, which is one of at least 12 similar cases, illustrates the underhand practices that occur over letting contracts. It shows why documents relating to the purchase of houses, and their subsequent improvement, should be open to inspection by councillors and the public.

Councillor Ken Livingston has been denied access to documents and interim reports regarding that property by GLC officers. After purchase, the house was referred to the housing department for survey. The survey stated that the property was vacant and could be let; that there was nothing wrong with it, and that no work needed doing. The survey stated that the premises could be let at once, that the fixtures and fittings were all there, and that the house appeared to be in perfect order.

The house was then referred to the survey department of the housing department. The result of that survey showed that the condition of the bath and wash-hand basin was good and that the general condition of the house was good. It stated that the property had been modernised and redecorated internally and externally and was available for letting.

The property was then referred by the housing district officer to the works manager, Mr Joseph Clayton. That section issued an order for replastering, fitting a bath, fixing internal services, redecorating and a considerable number of other works, which the other department's surveys said were not required.

Mr. Dick Canning, the district housing officer of the local authority, together with another chartered surveyor, visited the property and submitted a report to senior officers of the GLC which stated:
"So far as I am aware there is no laid down standard of what is lettable, but a sum of nearly £4,000 seems to me to represent rather more than an acceptable difference in professional judgment."
Mr. Canning inspected the property after £4,000 worth of unneceesary works had been ordered. He was suggesting that there had perhaps been double dealing or fraud.

No action was taken. Mr. Canning decided to resign and take the matter to an industrial tribunal, seeking constructive dismissal. The tribunal could not find in his favour over constructive dismissal but considered that he had good reason to suspect fraud. Mr. Fred Jackson, a senior officer of the local authority, appeared before the tribunal and denied that the accusation of fraud had been reporteed to him. Mr. Dungate and Mr. Hemming, other officers from the housing department, claimed categorically that there was a meeting with Mr. Jackson specifically to discuss the accusations of fraud, and I have evidence to that effect.

It is disturbing that public money can be dissipated in that way, and that a works management department of a large local authority, with apparent impunity, can order unnecessary work. It is also disturbing that when local authority officers try to draw the attention of senior management to discrepancies no action is taken. To cap it all, local authority councillors are denied access to documents and internal memoranda that would reveal the truth of the accusations. The new clause would release such documents, and local councillors, who are accountable to the public for local authority expenditure, would know the truth.

I have evidence of four other cases, and indications that there are at least 12 others. It is scandalous that the GLC should try to hide possible fraud in letting such contracts and deny access to documentary evidence to local councillors who wish to see whether the accusations are true. The GLC would not be able to do so if the new clause were accepted.

I cannot comment on the case to which the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) has drawn attention, but I have sympathy with much of the new clause. Subsections (1A) and (1B) of section 228 make a lot of sense. Councillors are often the last to know of matters about which they should properly know. They cannot be defenders of the public if they do not have a full range of weapons to enable them to exercise that responsibility.

The authority from which I came holds few meetings in private, and I believe that those that are held in private would meet with the hon. Gentleman's approval. However, I recognise that other authorities continue to meet in private when they could and should meet in public, where their affairs could be given much greater attention and involve their own electorate.

I have some doubt about the proposal in subsection (1C), to allow the electorate access to documents that form part of the background to reports before a council or one of its committees. There will be many occasions—perhaps so many as to put a question mark over the way in which the clause may operate—when the nature of the matter involved, regardless of whether it would come under the exceptions in subsection (1C)(b), would restrict and restrain those dealing with the council in its ordinary business. I am not sure that we should encourage that.

The motivation behind the new clause is eminently sensible and I hope that even if the clause has some defects, we shall find some way of meeting the points that I have made.

I agree with almost every word of the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). It is right that reports of any description should be available to all councillors. That is one of the basic essentials of local government.

I was a councillor for many years and I know the difficulties involved if, say, a councillor who is not a member of the housing committee wants a copy of a report that is to be submitted to that committee. If the report contains anything contentious, the councillor is often told that he cannot have a copy until the committee has considered it. That still happens in a number of councils.

I strongly agree with the proposals in subsection (3). It has been the technique of some authorities that believe in secrecy to set up sub-committees in order to get round the 1972 Act. That happens frequently. An analysis of the number of sub-committees in existence today compared with those that had been set up before the 1972 Act would show that the number has risen in almost geometric proportions.

On some councils, particularly rural county councils, all the council work tends to be concentrated in the hands of only half a dozen people. A powerful central block of councillors try to keep to themselves and the officers a considerable amount of information. Hampshire county council meets only quarterly and has decided that even that is too often. It is to cut out one meeting a year. It says that it is taking that action in order to save public expenditure and claims that it is obeying the Government's instructions on public spending. We call Hampshire a one-party state and it is rapidly developing a one-party state procedure.

It is essential that councillors should have access to reports and it is absurd for members of the public attending a committee meeting not to have documents in front of them to enable them to follow the proceedings. It would be like allowing the public into our Galleries but not providing them with copies of the Order Paper. It is right that documents should be available to members of the public who attend meetings and they should be available the next day to those who cannot attend.

However, I share the doubts of the hon. Member for Hornchurch about the wisdom of the new clause extending to interim reports and memoranda. There are many issues on which confidential reports have to be made by officers, and not only when the public would be excluded from the discussion anyway. Even on issues of general public debate, initial reports often cover delicate matters. I agree that reports should be made available to councillors, but I am not sure that they should be made available to members of the public before a matter has been considered by a committee. Once a committee has made a decision, the reports should be available, but if we followed the suggestions in the new clause, officers of a local authority would, for obvious reasons, be so careful in writing their reports that they would be meaningless to the councillors.

It is the job of officers to advise councillors. If they have to be careful because they know that what they say in an interim document may be splashed all over the place. we may end up with useless reports. I support four-fifths of the new clause, but I have grave doubts about subsection (1B).

5.15 pm

I share the view of the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) that councils are unnecessarily restrictive and that they ought to make much more information available to the public and to councillors who are not able to be present at certain meetings.

I think that I put into the 1972 Act the clause that the new clause seeks to amend, and I recognise that councils have got round it by setting up endless sub-committees. As a result, a statutory duty placed on councils to make more information available has led, in some cases, to less information being made available.

I would have agreed with the new clause if the hon. Member for Bootle had confined it largely to subsection (1A). He gets into trouble on subsection (1B), where he suggests that interim reports and memoranda be made available. The result of that, in many cases, would be that officers drawing up such documents, which may necessarily be consultative and indicate a series of options, would, if they knew that the reports were to become public and that the various options could blight all sorts of properties, dry up in the candour with which they introduced the documents to the councillors. It would inhibit the generation of the information that councillors require.

It seems that the hon. Member for Bootle must have recognised the difficulties that he was getting into while he was drawing up his new clause, because he has inserted subsection (1C), setting out the reasons that councils would be able to use for not doing what the hon. Gentleman wants. A council has only to resolve that publication would be
"an invasion of personal privacy or detrimental to the public interest"
and the documents need not be published. A council that does not want to publish documents will say that publication would be
"detrimental to the public interest"
and it would be judge and jury in its own case.

The Mid-Suffolk district council discovered recently that when the Housing Bill becomes law shortly it will give council tenants a statutory right to buy their homes and to take the gardens that go with them. The council decided at the last minute that it had better get hold of some of those gardens for future development.

The result has been eviction notices for more than 800 council tenants, who have been told that if they do not surrender their gardens before the Housing Bill becomes law they will be sued for possession in the county court and evicted. That is absurd. The decision was taken on the nod at the full council meeting where the public were present, but it was fully debated only in committee, when the public were not present. That is the sort of practice that brings local government into disrepute, and it is something of which the House must take account.

I do not intend to go into the merits of that case. I mention it merely to illustrate that there must be more exposure. However, all of us who have had anything to do with local government recognise that a local authority is not like the House of Commons. It is an executive body and has to deal with a range of subjects, such as personnel matters, salaries and executive matters concerning planning permissions, which can confer substantial financial gains or losses on various people. Because of their sensitive character, such matters cannot always be hawked about and debated in public.

There has to be, in an executive authority as opposed to a legislative and deliberative authority, a measure of confidentiality. The present law does not go far enough. Since I had some part in framing it, I am happy to say that. If the hon. Member for Bootle had confined himself to subsection (1A) he might have attracted some support from the Government Benches. In the event, I do not believe that the Government can possibly accept the clause as it stands. I hope that when he replies my right hon. Friend can give some encouragement to the House that we can go as far as subsection (1A) of the new clause.

I rise to support the new clause. I agree that it may need redrafting. I hope that the Government will be able either to assure us that it is unnecessary and that powers exist to enforce this sort of open government by local authorities or that they will accept it, even after some redrafting.

I do not intend to repeat the arguments already advanced for the new clause. I agree with all of them. I also agree with the reservations expressed about subsection (1B). Some further safeguard may have to be given over internal memoranda. I doubt whether many internal memoranda are entitled to more confidentiality than is given under subsection (1C). Reference has been made to matters concerning personnel, and private matters that I understand would be covered under (1C).

The phrase
"detrimental to the public interest"
is so wide that a local authority would be able to suppress anything. The clause will obviously need redrafting. I believe, nevertheless, that the principle is right.

In addition to the arguments already advanced, I recall Walter Lippmann saying that in terms of government the public was too often in the position of the deaf man in the back row of the stalls who did not know what was going on on the stage, and only saw figures vaguely crossing this way and that. That is true of a certain number of local councillors. I do not say that it applies to all local councillors, but it applies to some. They have a strong case in arguing that things are decided on documents without their being fully aware of what is happening.

There are two classes of document that I want to add to those already mentioned. Local authorities seem to engage increasingly in commissioning reports on this, that and the other. I am not sure that it is a practice of which I approve. I know of many examples of expensive reports being commissioned by local authorities. Not all the reports are made available, in total, to councillors. They should be.

Local authorities negotiate and sign all sorts of agreements. I have examples of agreements that were not made available to all councillors and certainly not to the public for many years after they were negotiated. The Government, I hope, are trying to encourage more freedom in local authorities and also to encourage more open government and to keep local councillors better informed. Unless the Government can say—this may be possible—that there is a statute covering the points made in the new clause, I hope that they will accept it. If the Government say that there is a statute, or some part of a statute, that would achieve what the mover of the new clause wants, I hope that they will take the opportunity to draw the attention of local authorities to such a statute. I believe that it is too often ignored.

We have had a most interesting debate on what I recognise is an important new clause. The comments made from both sides of the House reflect and anticipate, in a sense, the reply that I am bound to give on behalf of the Government. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) said, discreetly, that he thought the new clause might require a little redrafting. Parts of it obviously raise problems. It would be impossible for us to accept the new clause as it stands. This is in no sense the Government parading the usual answer, saying "Jolly good effort, but it is technically wrong" and then forgetting about it and not doing anything.

There are serious issues involved. I do not want to try to interpret the motives of the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) and his concern about the case that he raised. I cannot comment on that. The hon. Gentleman, in his emotions over that case, may have rushed too far in the new clause. I would only say, as a number of hon. Members have remarked, that if he had stopped earlier in the new clause there would have been wide support for the proposals that he makes.

The Government's view that there should be discretion and freedom within local authorities has been correctly interpreted. That should be combined with greater accountability to the electorate. Many of the issues raised under publication of information are designed to cover not merely information for electorates but information for councillors and help in interpreting much of that information. To modify further the Lippmann metaphor, it may be possible to see the figures clearly as they march across the stage, but the full significance of their entrances or exits are not fully understood. That is part of the area that the Government are keen to tackle.

I must say bluntly that I could not recommend the House to accept the new clause. We are concerned, however, to study methods of improving a number of areas that the hon. Member tackles. I should like to clarify the present position.

The first point in the new clause deals with the inspection of minutes of committee meetings. There is an anomaly. The public have a right of admission to council and committee meetings, but only the minutes of council meetings are required to be open to inspection. That is obviously an anomaly. On the question of availability of council and committee reports, the law at present makes no requirements as to the availability of such reports, and this would create new duties for local authorities.

On the question of access of councillors to documents, at the moment the councillor has a common law right to inspect such documents as may be reasonably necessary to enable him properly to perform his duties as a councillor. I accept that this is a matter for legal interpretation. The Government would expect that right to be exercised in the widest possible manner. Broadly speaking, a councillor, as a member of an authority, should have wide access to documents within that authority to enable him to discharge his proper responsibilities.

The proposal that the hon. Member for Bootle has put forward falls down in a number of respects. The statement in subsection (1C) that
"any local government elector for the area of a local authority may inspect and make a copy of or an extract from any interim report, memoranda, letters or other documents"
goes too far. We are concerned to have reasonable accountability and reasonable information. We are also concerned about the economic cost and efficiency of local authorities. I think that the House would feel that the proposal goes too far.

In normal times, whenever they may be, when a Labour Government are in office, there are not such financial constraints on local authorities and the proposal could be accepted from an economic point of view with certain equanimity. Is the Minister aware of the way in which these financial pressures have changed the whole approach to documentation? In the Stoke-on-Trent authority, all reports are now typed on A4 size paper and then, with the advanced technology now available, are reduced to half that size. That saves an enormous amount of money. Only a certain number of copies are produced for councillors. I hope that if the Minister accepts part of the new clause and makes it possible for a more generous distribution of the documentation he will make the appropriate adjustment in the rate support grant or block grant.

5.30 pm

I wondered how long it would be before Stoke-on-Trent reared its familiar head. I welcome the hon. Member back to our discussions, since we enjoyed his contribution in Committee.

The issue of cost arises. One must examine the implications of such a new clause. In a county council area, is it adequate for documents to be available only in the county hall? The problem of distribution to more distant parts of the county is important.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) referred discreetly to another aspect. The new clause makes no mention of protection for council officials against the law of defamation. If an internal report is made available generally officers will not present a frank report based on their best confidential advice because they have no cover.

The hon. Member for Bootle said that there was clear evidence of maladministration. The local government ombudsman has the power to investigate and obtain documents for an investigation into maladministration.

The Minister says that there is a common law right to inspect documents. Does that apply to Scotland? Perhaps his neighbour on the Front Bench, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, will know—or perhaps he will not.

The answer to the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's question apparently is "No". I shall seek advice.

Hon. Members have said that the proposal relating to proceedings being open to the public might lead to proliferation of sub-committees. Hon. Members might think that the new clause covers that, but it does not. Sub-committees are not covered. That provides another palpable loophole and another incentive to create yet more sub-committees.

I accept that the wording of the new clause does not cover the point, because we are approaching the realm of sub sub-committees. The wording could be revised. In principle, are the Government in agreement with the proposition that meetings of sub-committees should be open to the public on the same basis as meetings of committees?

The Government are sympathetic, but a council is not like Parliament. It has executive and personnel functions, and a number of different responsibilities. It is not merely a debating chamber or legislature.

Our policy is to ensure greater accountability and more open government at all levels. The general public will no longer accept tablets handed down from on high, whether from the Government or councils. There must be fuller discussion of controversial issues.

I am sorry that I cannot accept the new clause. However, the Government are sympathetic to the first part of it. It would be wrong, and contrary to our policy, to take action without fuller consultation with the local authority associations. It might be said that vested interests will not wish to respond. In my discussions with local authorities I have found a recognition of the need to improve arrangements. We should like to consider these matters further and see whether we can bring the proposals before the House later. I am not talking of the possibility of introducing amendments in another place, because we need more time for discussion than that would allow.

I welcome the spirit in which the House has debated the new clause. The three parties have welcomed its intention. Doubts have been expressed about the wording. Before I came to the House I was a social worker and city councillor; not a lawyer. I hope that the Government will be true to their word and draft a provision that is technically and legally accurate and that meets the view expressed by all sides. I, too, am sceptical about local government response. We heard the true voice of local government vested interest in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Cant). I hope that the Government will stick to the Minister's undertaking. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.