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New Clause 6

Volume 204: debated on Tuesday 25 February 1992

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Public Information

  • '(1) This section shall have effect for the purposes of securing proper public information about and involvement in the procedure established under Part II of this Act.
  • (2) Before making any order under section 17 (1) below, the Secretary of State shall by a date not later than two months before the laying of any such order—
  • (a) publish any relevant recommendation of the Commission;
  • (b) ensure that persons interested in the review are enabled to make comments on the relevant recommendations; and
  • (c) publish a statement of his response to the recommendations of the Commission.'.—[Mr. O'Brien.]
  • Brought up, and read the First time.

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

    Due to lack of time, we have not moved new clause 1. New clause 6 is a significant and important amendment to clause 17. It is significant that so far in this debate we have discussed only part II of the Bill. The new clause will ensure that a proper public information exercise takes place and that people interested in the legislation will be allowed information about and involvement in any procedure established under part II of the Bill.

    The new clause states:
    "Before making any order under section 17 (1) below, the Secretary of State shall by a date not later than two months before the laying of any such order—
    (a) publish any relevant recommendations of the Commission".
    That means that the people who could be affected by the commission's recommendations should be made fully aware of any effects that the recommendations may have.

    8.30 pm

    If we are to be fully democratic in our approach to the reorganisation of local government, everyone involved must have the right to know about the changes. They are entitled to make comments and recommendations. The Secretary of State should ensure that people interested in the review are able to comment on the recommendations that affect them. The Secretary of State should also publish a statement of his response to the commission's recommendations. There must be a full public relations exercise so that the commission's recommendations are made fully available.

    We have outlined in detail, in Committee and to some extent in the House today, how the public could be involved in the commission's recommendations. They could be involved in questions of boundaries, local representation, housing or other services. We therefore believe that those people should have the opportunity to comment on the report. When the Secretary of State considers the representations and publishes his report, that should also be made available to those involved.

    That policy should apply not only to local government customers, but to people involved in local government. If we are to be fair and honest with all the people who could be involved, ensuring that information is made available to them is of paramount importance. If there is any reason why the public should not be informed of the commission's work and decisions, and the recommendations of the Secretary of State, the Minister should spell that out to the House. If there is no reason why people should not be advised or have the opportunity to make observations and comments on the response of the Secretary of State, the new clause should be accepted today.

    We have tabled the new clause as we consider that it is constructive and will strengthen the Bill. Although we do not agree with many aspects of the Bill, we believe that it should be strengthened in this way. It is against that backcloth that I commend the new clause for consideration by the House, and ask the House to accept it.

    I have no particular disagreement with the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) about the desirability of publicity being given to the recommendations made by the local government commission, but I think that the new clause is unnecessary. He should consider clause 15 of the Bill.

    Clause 15(1) provides that people who may be interested in the review should be informed of the review's existence. Clause 15(2) provides that steps should be taken to inform people who have an interest of the fact that the commission is conducting a review and the period in which representations may be made. Clause 15(3) states that the local government commission is bound to take into account any representations, to prepare draft recornmendations and to deposit those
    "recommendations at the principal office of any principal council appearing to that Commission to be likely to be affected by them; and take into consideration any representations made to that Commission".
    Under clause 15(4) the local government commission is obliged to submit to the Secretary of State a report and to
    "take such steps as it considers sufficient to secure that persons who may be interested in the recommendations are informed of them."
    Clause 15(5) contains a requirement that copies of any draft recommendations should be
    "deposited at the principal office of a principal council"
    and should be kept available for inspection so that representations in respect of them can be made. Clause 15(7) states that
    "The Secretary of State may give directions as to the exercise by the Local Government Commission of any functions under"
    clause 15.

    Therefore, the process that we foresee is that the commission will start a review with publicity and consultation to take into account the representations received in drawing up draft recommendations. The public should be consulted on the draft recommendations and account should be taken of those representations when preparing the final recommendations. The final representations should be submitted to the Secretary of State and there should be a further opportunity for the public to comment, this time to the Secretary of State, before he makes an order and brings it to Parliament to give effect to the commission's recommendations.

    Therefore, there are ample opportunities for publicity to be given to the commission's work and to the report laid before the Secretary of State, and for representations to be made to the Secretary of State himself.

    We intend to issue procedural guidance to organisations that could be consulted at each stage, as well as a general requirement that the commission should make the existence of the review made known widely and should consider all the views that come forward, whether solicited or not.

    When ensuring that people have access to information, will the Minister take into account people with specific difficulties such as the blind and the deaf? Will he oblige local authorities to make sure that people with disabilities have access to the information to which, as citizens, they are entitled?

    I am sure that the hon. Gentleman followed our deliberations in Committee carefully, when we discussed an amendment to that effect. I hope that the local government commission will make information available on request in the form described by the hon. Gentleman. I am reluctant to make it an obligation on the local government commission that it should automatically produce material, not least because the various forms in which it may be published are different for people with different disabilities, but I shall ask the local government commission to bear in mind the needs of people who are partially sighted or blind, and people with other disabilities or language difficulties who might otherwise be denied access to the important information.

    I must correct myself: our debate in Committee was not on the local government commission, but on a different part of the Bill. However, it was related to the same subject and my response is generally the same. I think that the information should be considered carefully by the local government commission if a request is made. It would not be right to demand of the local government commission that it automatically produces its recommendations in various forms.

    The guidance that the Government will issue will also stress the importance of gauging the views of people living in the district, and others who might be affected, and will set out ways of achieving that.

    I have no particular disagreement with the view of the hon. Member for Normanton that it is important at every stage to publicise recommendations and that people's views should be taken into account. There will, of course, be bodies that it will be considered right for the commission to consult; it will also be considered right for it to take into account representations made by anyone, regardless of whether that person has been invited to make representations.

    Now that I have explained to the hon. Gentleman how clause 15 will operate, and given him an indication of the way in which I intend the procedural guidance to be drafted, I hope that he will see fit to withdraw the motion.

    Clearly, as the Minister says, there is not much to divide us on the issue. However, clause 15 does not deal with the points that are giving rise to concern —hence new clause 6. Under clause 15,

    "the Local Government Commission shall…take into consideration any representations made to it within the period mentioned in subsection (1)(c) or (2)(c) above…draft recommendations and take such steps as it considers sufficient to secure that persons who may be interested in the recommendations are informed of them and of the period within which recommendations with respect to them may be made".
    We are saying that, in the interests of greater public awareness, the recommendations should be published and made public—that they should be deposited in the library or in some other public office.

    We ask not only for the commission's recommendations to be made available to those involved and to the wider public, but for the Secretary of State's response to those recommendations to be publicised. Clause 15 makes no such provision. Subsection (7) provides:
    "The Secretary of State may give directions as to the exercise by the Local Government Commission of any functions under this section; and such directions may require that Commission to have regard to any guidance given by the Secretary of State as respects matters to be taken into account."
    We do not think that that is sufficient assurance that the information will be made available. We want firmer provisions to be included in the Bill, and we are disappointed to learn that the Government cannot accept our proposal.

    The issue should be given further consideration. People need to be fully informed of both the commission's decisions and the Secretary of State's response. Although, as I have said, our positions do not differ greatly, I ask the Minister to think carefully about the matter.

    Let me make two points. First, I assure the hon. Gentleman that—as with local government boundary decisions now—there will always be a period after the Secretary of State receives a report during which he can receive public comments that may be submitted to him. The second, obvious point is that the Secretary of State must bring an order to Parliament in regard to structural changes; such orders will he subject to affirmative resolution. The final decision must be taken in Parliament.

    That demonstrates again that there is not a great deal between our thinking and that of the Minister. Both sides accept the importance of the availability of public information about any recommendation from the commission, and about the Secretary of State's response. We merely ask for a public information exercise to be undertaken, both in the House and outside. If the Minister gives further consideration to the principles and the merits of the new clause, I am sure that he could respond more fully.

    Although I do not intend to press the motion to a Division, I feel that we should be able to return to the new clause if necessary.

    Question put and negatived.