I beg to move amendment 2, page 1, line 5, leave out from “after” to the end of the subsection and insert—
“any members of the public who are registered to vote in local elections in the United Kingdom”.
This amendment would further extend the public access to local audit documents under section 26 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 in the interest of transparency and accountability.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 3, page 1, line 5, leave out from “insert” to end of subsection and insert “including any politician or journalist”.
This amendment extends access to politicians as well as journalists so that they can access the information needed to fulfil their scrutiny function.
Amendment 4, page 1, line 5, leave out from “insert” to end of subsection and insert “including non-domestic ratepayer”.
This amendment extends access to non-domestic ratepayers and clarifies the existing law.
Amendment 5, page 1, line 5, after “any” insert “accredited”.
Amendment 6, page 1, line 5, after “any” insert “professional”.
Amendment 7, page 1, line 5, after “any” insert “qualified”.
Amendments 5, 6 and 7 would ensure that bloggers and citizen journalists would not have greater access than other members of the public.
Amendment 8, page 1, line 6, leave out subsection (3).
This amendment would remove the definition of journalist.
Amendment 1, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
“(1B) In subsection (1A) publication of journalistic material means the proposed inclusion in a newspaper or magazine whether paid for or distributed without payment and includes any article proposed to be published on any website on the internet whether it can be accessed without payment or upon payment of a subscription.”
The purpose of this amendment is to make clear that the section covers all journalists who may wish to publish their articles in a newspaper or magazine or on the internet, irrespective of whether there are any charges for either.
Amendment 9, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
“( ) The relevant authority must ensure that any person interested in making an inspection within subsection (1) may do so at all reasonable times and without payment”.
This amendment would extend to section 26 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 the same conditions as is set out in section 25 (3) of the Act.
Amendment 10, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
“( ) In subsection (1) after ‘Act’ in line 1 leave out ‘other than an audit of accounts of a health service body’”.
This amendment (which amends section 26 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014) would enable “persons interested” to inspect the accounting records relating to the audit of accounts of a health service body.
Amendment 11, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
“( ) In subsection (1) after “At” in line 1 insert “and after”.
This amendment (which amends section 26 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014) would extend the period in which inspections can be carried out beyond 30 days.
Amendment 12, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
“( ) In subsection (4)(a) leave out “inspect or”.
This amendment (which amends section 26 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014) would remove the restriction on inspecting any part of any record or document on the grounds of commercial confidentiality but would retain the restriction on copying.
Amendment 13, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
“( ) Subsection 4 (a) after ‘grounds of’ insert ‘current’”.
This amendment (which amends section 26 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014) would ensure that documents relating to past contracts could be inspected.
Amendment 14, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
“( ) Subsection (5) is hereby repealed.”
This amendment (which amends section 26 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014) would remove the definition in the Act of when information is protected on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.
In moving amendment 2, we are mindful that this is a week in which there has been an attack on our parliamentary democracy, and we mourn Keith Palmer and the others who were the victims of that terrorist. This Bill and these amendments deal not with parliamentary democracy, but with local democracy, and their purpose is to strengthen further our local democracy in the United Kingdom.
I will also speak to amendments 3 and 4, which extend the range of individuals who are able to benefit from the powers under section 26 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014—my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) is seeking to achieve that in her Bill. I shall also speak to amendments 5, 6, 7 and 9, which look in detail at what we mean by the expression “journalist” in clause 1. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) has an amendment dealing with the definition of journalistic material, which I shall leave him to address.
Amendment 9 deals with the arrangements for exercising the right to inspect, and amendment 11 would extend the period within which such rights can be exercised beyond 30 days. Amendment 12 would enable documents, which are claimed to be commercially confidential, to be inspected but not copied. Amendment 13 would extend the right to inspect past contracts, and amendment 14 would leave the definition of commercial confidentiality unaltered in common law. Finally, amendment 10, which is arguably the most radical of these amendments, would extend the right of inspection beyond local government to the audit of accounts of any health service body as defined in the 2014 Act.
It will be obvious from that brief summary that all the amendments are faithful to the long title of the Bill, which is to extend public access to certain local audit documents under section 26 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014.
My amendments are also inspired by recent experiences of how secrecy in local government is undermining the ability of members of the public properly to scrutinise what is happening and to hold councils to account. They also seek to address some of the issues raised on Second Reading on 25 November.
My hon. Friend touches on the Second Reading debate, which is something that I hope to address in my remarks later today. Does he share my concern that the matters that were raised on Second Reading were not addressed when this Bill was in Committee?
My hon. Friend is on to a good point. On Second Reading, quite a lot of references were made to the fact that we would discuss matters in Committee. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) said that if he was put on the Committee, he would like to raise this and that as an amendment, but he was never put on the Committee. If the records are correct, the Committee stage lasted for all of 21 minutes. I do not think that there could have been proper scrutiny of the Bill. None the less, there were some interesting remarks made in Committee, some of which I shall refer to shortly.
I just wish to make it clear that we had a debate in Committee. No Member was precluded from tabling an amendment, and we had a good turnout on the day. I will be responding to the hon. Gentleman’s points in more detail when I have the chance to speak.
I am told by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North from a sedentary position that the Committee lasted only 11 minutes. I am sure that he will be able to explain further in due course.
Currently, a person who is registered as an elector in a local authority area has the right to inspect and have copies of a wider range of accounts and related documentation under section 25 of the 2014 Act and therefore has no additional benefits under section 26. Amendment 2 addresses the issue of electors in other local authority areas, who have no such rights unless they can show that they are “persons interested” under section 26. At no time, in my submission, has it been more important for electors in other local authority areas to be able to see what is going on elsewhere. Following the abolition of the Audit Commission, which provided easily accessible local authority data, it has become more difficult to make comparisons, despite the importance of comparative data for accountability and policy making.
I chair the Public Accounts Commission, and we have been looking at the accountability of local government. My hon. Friend makes a good point: the National Audit Office, which audits all central Government Departments—a massive task—is now effectively the auditor of local government. Although I favour the reform, my hon. Friend is right to raise the fact that there is undoubtedly much less detailed inspection of local government audit and finance as a result.
My hon. Friend speaks with great knowledge and experience on this matter. The amendment is, in a sense, supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker). On Second Reading, he intervened on the Minister to ask,
“might not the Government—in the interests of honesty, openness and accountability—consider…opening things up completely, well beyond the intention of the Bill, so that anybody can access this information?”
The Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), said,
“I shall come on to that point a little later and explain why the balance is right.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2016; Vol. 617, c. 1211.]
Unfortunately, apart from asserting that the measures in the Bill were proportionate, the Minister never got on to that important point. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), will be able to address that shortcoming.
I was somewhat perplexed by a comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, who was the Minister in Committee on 7 February:
“I am reminded of Margaret Thatcher, who in her maiden speech introduced the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960, which was in a similar vein; it was about opening up local government to journalists and other interested parties.”––[Official Report, Local Audit (Public Access to Documents) Public Bill Committee, 7 February 2017; c. 4.]
With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, I think that the core of Margaret Thatcher’s Bill was ensuring that the public had access, which is what I seek to achieve with this amendment. We need more open, public access, just as the late Baroness Thatcher wanted the public to have access to local authority meetings. Her references to journalists in the 1960 Act were mostly about ensuring that accredited representatives of newspapers who attended such council meetings were provided with reasonable facilities for taking their report. I do not think it is fair to pray in aid our distinguished former Prime Minister as a supporter of the Bill, but not amendment 2. I suspect that the noble Baroness would have been a strong supporter of the amendment.
The amendment is highly relevant in the current climate, in which many councils seek to reorganise themselves into new structures—you know that as well as anybody does, Mr Speaker. At district council level, Buckinghamshire, Dorset, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire and Kent are all toying with that idea, and I have no doubt that many others will do so. At present, it is difficult for a local taxpayer to get hard access to information about what is happening in another council, despite the fact that that local council may aspire to take over the assets and income of the council in which the taxpayer is resident.
I will illustrate that point with an example from Bournemouth. In speaking of Bournemouth, may I say how proud those of us who live near Bournemouth are of the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) conducted himself on Wednesday? That was an example of public service at its best, and I fear that what I am about to say compares very unfavourably with his conduct.
Order. The reference by the hon. Gentleman to the “Rotten Boroughs” column is, of itself, orderly, but it might help and inform the debate if that reference could be related more specifically to the terms of the important amendment to which he is speaking.
I absolutely take that point, Mr Speaker.
I want to speak directly to my hon. Friend’s amendment in terms of understanding what other local authorities are doing. I see the Minister sitting in his place. We have had hugely controversial arguments in Lincolnshire about whether to have a mayor, and I and others managed to defeat that. There is now a proposal—it is only a rumour—that North Lincolnshire Council may want to take over or merge with West Lindsey, which I represent. As an elector of West Lindsey, I have absolutely no way of knowing what is going on in North Lincolnshire. I think that if that is being discussed in private, electors in West Lindsey, who have a crucial interest in that, should have a right to know what is going on.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and it is in essence what I have been saying about the position in Bournemouth. If Bournemouth is to take over or merge with Christchurch in a unitary authority, the people in Christchurch need to know the nature of Bournemouth Borough Council’s debts and liabilities and how it conducts its proceedings, particularly in planning. One of the key losses in such a merger would be the loss of Christchurch Borough Council’s control over its own greenbelt and planning policy. That is one of the biggest concerns that my local residents have. They fear that they will lose control over the quality of their local environment, which they currently control through local planning policy.
The amendment seeks to ensure that anybody can get access to such information, rather than just limiting it to journalists. Obviously, the information to which I referred earlier will become available only when the audit for this financial year is conducted, and that may be rather later in the day than most people would wish.
As my hon. Friend knows, many local papers are stretched financially and therefore deterred from publishing things—perhaps including things about the leader of Bournemouth council—because they fear being sued and do not have the resources to defend themselves. Does he agree that that is why it is so important that not just journalists but the public have access to such material, so that they can make up their own minds and are not dependent on newspapers being able to afford to risk publishing things that may cause them to end up in court?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We in this place are trying to do the job of holding councils to account. I tabled a parliamentary question earlier this year to find out the level of non-domestic rate arrears in Bournemouth. I eventually got the answer that there were between £10 million and £12 million of uncollected non-domestic rates. To the council’s credit, within weeks it had issued summonses against all those who owed arrears—I like to think I had some influence on that. We are talking about £10 million to £12 million of non-domestic rate arrears, at a time when we are saying that it is absolutely essential to save 1% of turnover by abolishing existing sovereign councils. It is farcical.
Trying to get councils to address these issues themselves is often very difficult. The idea of setting up scrutiny committees, which was part of the Localism Act 2011, has not really worked because those committees are often occupied by people who do not really understand, or are not interested in, genuinely holding the council to account. There is also the problem that scrutiny committees are not entitled to look into planning issues, which are often among the most controversial local issues.
There are lots of other things I could say about neighbouring councils, but I will not trouble the House with all that now. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) is here, and he may wish to add to that catalogue in due course if he contributes to the debate. The essence of the amendment is that everybody should be able to access such information. It should not be limited to journalists and other interested parties.
The idea is very much supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley, who wanted to extend those rights to everybody. I anticipate the probable response of the Bill’s sponsor, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, to this point. On Second Reading, she resisted arguments to extend the rights by saying:
“If the rights were extended to anyone and everyone, there would be great potential to make mischief through multiple requests to inspect or copy documents, without the accompanying ability to make a meaningful contribution towards raising awareness or improving the accountability of the body concerned.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2016; Vol. 617, c. 1199.]
I implore my hon. Friend to reflect on what she said, because it is a sweeping generalisation and no evidence was adduced in support of it. Where is the evidence that the freedom to look at documents would be abused? Indeed, if it is abused, there are already safeguards to deal with vexatious behaviour. That, in summary, is the case for amendment 2.
The whole Bill arises from the problem of defining terms. Has my hon. Friend given any thought to exactly what constitutes a “politician”? For example, does it include someone who is a candidate in an election, or only an elected politician?
My hon. Friend has tried, probably very successfully, to torpedo my amendment. I accept the implied, or even indeed the express, criticism that he has articulated. However, I would fall back on the general common-law interpretation of “politician”, which is probably the best way of dealing with that, without specifically having to define it in the amendment.
Amendment 4 would clarify the law by making it clear that “persons interested” also includes non-domestic ratepayers. I raise that issue because it was the focus of the court case of R. (on the application of HTV Ltd) v. Bristol City Council, reported at EWHC 1219. Paragraph 48 of the judgment of Mr Justice Elias on 14 May 2004 said that he had
“reached the conclusion that the interest which the claimant has as a non-domestic ratepayer is sufficient to bring it within the concept of ‘persons interested’.”
In that case, Bristol City Council had argued to the contrary, citing in support the changes to non-domestic rate legislation in the Local Government Finance Act 1988. With forthcoming changes—the introduction of the 100% retention of business rates, and the pooling of business rates across local authorities—it is worth using this opportunity to clarify and put on the record that the existing legislation should expressly incorporate the rights of non-domestic ratepayers. That is the background to amendment 4.
Amendments 5 to 7 are alternative ways of limiting the term “journalist” in the Bill to real journalists. It is noteworthy that section 1(4)(c) of the 1960 Act provides that
“duly accredited representatives of newspapers attending for the purpose of reporting the proceedings for those newspapers shall…be afforded reasonable facilities”.
The National Union of Journalists website sets out what is needed to establish that someone is an accredited journalist. An accredited journalist must have
“Employer Identification: Business card, employer I.D. badge, or letter of assignment on corporate letterhead. (Letterhead must identify media outlet name, address and phone)”
“Proof of Assignment: Sample by-lined article published within the past 6-months, or current masthead that includes the reporters name & title, or official letter of assignment from a media outlet.”
Those are necessary, for example, for a person to be admitted to a press conference as an accredited journalist. It seems to me that if we are to extend such rights to journalists, we should encourage those journalists to be accredited, rather than amateur journalists.
Why? We are moving into a completely different digital age in which people can set up blogs and Facebook pages. This is just inevitable, and my hon. Friend is slightly living in the past when he talks about the NUJ and journalists having to be accredited. He is just trying to put his finger in the dam, and it is not going to work. We need to have complete openness and complete transparency.
That is the first time that anyone has suggested I am living in the past. To take my hon. Friend’s point, if we are to give privileged access to journalists—our hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills is seeking to give journalists privileged access compared with other members of the public—those journalists need to be qualified in the sense that they understand the law, not just people who are prejudiced or not objective and who do not have the standards that we normally expect of journalists. My feeling is that if we are to give them special privileges, they should be duly accredited.
As I have said, I have expressed that point in alternative ways: we could also refer to them as professional journalists. As you may know, Mr Speaker, there is a society called the Society of Professional Journalists, which requires a professional journalist to adhere
“to a strict code of ethics so as to maintain and preserve public trust, confidence and reliability”—
I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) thinks it important that journalists should adhere to a strict code of ethics—
“To ensure this the process of ‘gate keeping’ is upheld within mainstream media. This relies on all experienced and trained journalists and editors to filter any nonfactual information from news reports before publication or broadcasting.”
I do not want to go into the whole issue of fake news, but it is probably now more important than ever for us to ensure that there is some basis for the reports put forward by journalists, and how can that be policed unless by a body such as the National Union of Journalists or the Society of Professional Journalists?
Order. Ordinarily, I feel that I can follow and, to an extent, anticipate the hon. Gentleman, such is the frequency with which I have heard his speeches over three decades, but on this occasion my senses have deserted me. I had thought that he was going to tell us how many members the society has.
Mr Speaker, I was not actually going to go into that level of detail.
Because I am seeking to make quite a lot of points. I am sure that, however many members the society has, it will have even more members if the Bill is amended as I propose.
My hon. Friend is beginning to lose me. It seems to me that he made a good case earlier for his amendment 2, which would provide access for as many people as possible—I am absolutely with him on that—but he now appears to be arguing for restricting the number of people who have access to such things, which flies in the face of his earlier amendment. Will he clarify whether he really supports his earlier amendment, rather than what may be seen as these probing amendments?
Yes, I absolutely support my amendment 2. I tabled these alternative amendments 5 to 7 because in the event that my earlier amendment is not accepted by the Bill’s promoter—
That’s very defeatist.
Yes, it is indeed defeatist, and it is uncharacteristic of me to be defeatist about such things. In a sense, this is a case of belt and braces: if we are going to give privileged access to a group of people—my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills wants it to be journalists—they should be accredited, professional or qualified journalists, rather than people who simply call themselves journalists.
I hope that my hon. Friend will not be defeated on amendment 2—I encourage him to strive for it and I think that he will garner a lot of support—but surely if his first amendment fails, the second-best option is for as many people as possible, within the terms of “journalist”, to have access to this information. Surely that is a better fall-back position than trying to restrict it even more?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but why should we, to maximise the number of people who have access, distort the meaning of “journalist” by saying that any member of the public can describe themselves as a journalist and thereby come within the terms of the Bill, rather than make it clear that we want to include all members of the public? But if we are talking about journalists, we owe it to them to try to maintain a standard for professional and accredited journalists.
Has my hon. Friend noted the title of clause 1: “Inspection of accounting records by journalists and citizen journalists”? I hope, when I come on to my amendment, he will see that I have gone in exactly the opposite direction: rather than try to narrow the definition of journalist, I am trying to widen it.
That is probably why I have not sought to address my hon. Friend’s amendment. I am sorry that we cannot reach a consensus on this group of amendments, although there does seem to be a pretty strong consensus on the earlier amendments.
I draw the attention of the House to the fact that the NUJ has a code of conduct.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about professional qualifications and the accreditation of journalists and newspaper people. Does he agree that that would also apply to the editors of newspapers, including large publications that represent London?
I would indeed—absolutely. Editors are included in the wider definition of “journalist”. The hon. Lady makes a good point.
The NUJ code of conduct sets out 12 principles by which its journalists are expected to abide. I will not tell the House about them all, but, for example, one is to avoid plagiarism. Another is to resist threats or any other inducements to influence, distort or suppress information and not to produce any material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age, gender, race and so on. The most important of all is for journalists to do their utmost to correct harmful inaccuracies and to distinguish between fact and opinion—although that is not something we always find with journalists.
Before my hon. Friend moves on, amendments 5, 6 and 7 have been tabled as alternatives—we cannot adopt all three. Will he let the House know which of the three alternatives he personally prefers?
Of those three, I prefer amendment 5 on accreditation, because “accredited journalist” is a well-understood expression. As I said earlier, it is even referred to in statute, such as in the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960.
Amendment 8 seeks to ensure that we do not define “journalist” in the Bill. The Office for National Statistics lists a series of roles defined as “journalist”. These form the single occupational group of journalists and newspaper and periodical editors—including the editor of the London Evening Standard.
Amendment 9 would ensure that any person making an inspection under section 26(1) of the 2014 Act could do so at all reasonable times and without payment. If section 26 is to achieve the Government’s purpose, we need to ensure that this provision is included, otherwise it would be too easy for the objectives of transparency and accountability to be frustrated. In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, said:
“In 2015-16, it would seem that local electors exercised their rights over a total of 11,000 bodies only around 65 times.”––[Official Report, Local Audit (Public Access to Documents) Public Bill Committee, 7 April 2017; c. 5.]
They did so under section 25, but it would be ridiculous to suggest that extending the same rights to section 26 applicants would be unduly burdensome and too expensive.
My hon. Friend speaks with authority and knowledge, so this intervention is a genuine request for information. We have the Freedom of Information Act 2000. I would like to hear from him—I suspect the House would like to hear it, too—how the ability of a member of the public to get information about local authorities relates to his or her freedom to get information about central Government.
I do not hold myself up as an expert on the Freedom of Information Act, but local authorities are subject to it, just like any other public body. Freedom of information depends on being able to know what question to ask. Quite often, it is only when one looks at the accounts, or documents relating to the accounts, that we know what question to ask. Freedom of information powers can be more potent because they can be exercised at any time and the local authority is under an obligation to respond within, I think, 20 days or a reasonable period. They can be more potent, but the base information that enables people to understand what questions they really want to ask can probably be ascertained only by inspecting the documents.
I am not an expert, but I would think that a freedom of information request is more costly to a council than what is proposed in the Bill. Perhaps a balance on cost-effectiveness needs to be taken into consideration, too.
My hon. Friend may make a fair point. One problem is that some councils are really open and transparent. They receive very few freedom of information requests because they make information available. I will come on to an example where that has not been happening, and even councillors say, “Will I have to make a freedom of information request to get information from the chief executive of the council on which I serve?” That situation is intolerable. A lot depends on the culture of a council.
I was first elected to Wandsworth council in 1974—this is going back a long way—in the aftermath of a big corruption scandal. Immediately prior to 1974, the housing committee chairman of the Labour council had been sentenced to a term of imprisonment for receiving corrupt payments from someone called T. Dan Smith. After that, the culture in Wandsworth changed: everything was open. Tender documents were open, so everyone could see what was happening. It is a pity that that transparency is not the norm in so many councils throughout the country.
Amendment 12 would remove the restriction in section 26(4)(a) of the 2014 Act on the entitlement of a person
“to inspect…any part of any record or document containing information which is protected on the grounds of commercial confidentiality”.
There is an interesting interaction between the freedom of information rules and the rules relating to a council’s access to documents under the powers in the 2014 Act. The amendment does not go the whole way—it would not remove the restriction on copying—but it was inspired by a recent set of events in Christchurch. Local people wanted to get to the truth of an extraordinary episode.
You will remember, Mr Speaker, that we had an Adjournment debate about beach huts in Christchurch just before the summer recess. During that debate, I drew the House’s attention to an extraordinary state of affairs. Christchurch borough council had entered into an agreement with an organisation called Plum Pictures to develop overnight residential beach huts as part of a competition organised by the Channel 4 programme “Amazing Spaces”. It did not need to obtain planning permission. There was a big stink about it all, and—partly, I think, as a result of the Adjournment debate—the contract was aborted. The council’s scrutiny committee then started an inquiry.
Despite the recommendations of the committee, which reported two or three weeks ago, the councillors have still not been shown a copy of the original contract, although it had been negated. The council is citing commercial confidentiality. I wrote to its chief executive on 3 August last year asking to see a copy of the competition and access agreement with Plum Pictures, but I have still not received a response. I had been waiting for the result of the scrutiny committee’s inquiry, but the chief executive is apparently not obliged even to comply with its recommendations.
On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) said:
“Clearly, the aim of the Bill is to throw the light of transparency on council proceedings where taxpayers’ money is being spent. In that regard, it is vital that commercial confidentiality is not used as a tool to hide documents and that these proceedings become more open.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2016; Vol. 617, c. 1203.]
I know that amendment 12 has the support of colleagues who participated in that debate.
Amendment 13 complements amendment 12 by enabling past as well as current contracts to be looked at. Amendment 14 would remove the definition of commercial confidentiality from the Bill so that it relied on existing common law. There is a mass of documentation about common-law commercial confidentiality, linked with the rules relating to freedom of information. In view of the time, I shall not go into the details now, but it seems to me that if we want the Bill to achieve its objective, there is no point in maintaining the ability of councils to impose a complete closedown by asserting that information is commercially confidential—which is all that has to happen.
The amendments would enable a member of the public to look at the document concerned, although not to copy it, and then to make his or her own assessment of whether it was commercially confidential, and whether it was in the public interest for it to be made more widely available. I think that the current tight drafting, and the restrictions on any material that is, or may be, commercially confidential, is a big weakness in the Bill.
I said at the beginning of my speech that I would keep the most radical amendment until the end. Amendment 10 would extend the right to inspect documents relating to the accounts of a health service body. I do not understand why, at a time when there is so much public concern about what is happening in various branches of the NHS—whether it be trust hospitals, clinical commissioning groups or other organisations—we are not allowing members of the public to have access to the relevant documents. We know, for example, that some NHS chief executives and other staff and administrators have received massive pay-offs. At the end of the day, the costs are not just borne by the national taxpayer but are taken out of local budgets, because they are allocated to clinical commissioning groups such as the one in Dorset.
I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills this question: why should not local people, including local journalists, be assisted by the Bill? On Second Reading, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton, said:
“by giving journalists the right to access recent accounting information from a range of local public bodies, the Bill will assist them in ?their investigations”. —[Official Report, 25 November 2016; Vol. 617, c. 1210-11.]
My hon. Friend is on to a very good point. We are dealing with a powerful issue, and there is not really enough time for us to discuss it today, but let me explain what I want the Bill to do. Again, I am addressing the Minister, because I think that the Government must get a grip on this. I want a culture that enables all members of the public—not just members of the National Union of Journalists, not just cliques, not just councillors, not just Members of Parliament—to have access to the accounts of not only those who work in local government and health services but those who work in academies, where huge salaries are often paid. That is what should happen in a modern age.
I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to what my hon. Friend has said. I know that health is not his direct responsibility, but I am sure that he will have been briefed by his colleagues, because he obviously had notice of the amendment.
Surely this is an opportunity for the Government to demonstrate again to the public of the United Kingdom that they are on their side and will do everything in their power to ensure that there is proper scrutiny and accountability in relation to bodies that consume so much public resource. In my area, there continues to be a big conflict over a proposed merger between Poole hospital and the Royal Bournemouth. Eventually, during the last Parliament, I was able to persuade the Competition and Markets Authority that the merger should not be allowed to go ahead.
However, I have been told that covert discussions are taking place, and that the two hospitals are trying to persuade the authority to change its normal rule—that a merger cannot proceed within the next 10 years—in this particular instance. However, it is all happening under the radar: Joe Public does not know about it. That strikes me as another example of the sometimes cavalier way in which some of our local health organisations are operating.
May I start by paying tribute not only to the promoter of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), but also to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), because the whole House owes him a debt of gratitude for the forensic way in which he has analysed this Bill and brought such a wide array of amendments for the House to consider this morning? It seems to me that if this Bill had been subject to my hon. Friend’s level of scrutiny in its earlier stages and been examined in the detail he has demonstrated this morning, perhaps we would not be in the position that we find ourselves in now.
I cannot make any prediction as to the length of time for which I will need to address the House, but I will deal succinctly with the amendments before us. I wish to advance to the House the reasons for my amendment and explain why it is important that it is accepted. I have adopted a slightly different approach from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. He has adopted a more scatter-gun approach—that is a description, not a criticism—whereas I have concentrated my fire on just one amendment, and I will guide the House through why I think it is critical that it is accepted.
I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills. As the House will be aware, she has rightly already achieved a degree of expertise in private Member’s Bills. In her first session in Parliament, she steered on to the statute book a private Member’s Bill dealing with Great Ormond Street hospital, and everyone is grateful to her for that. She has also demonstrated her expertise in the way in which this Bill has been progressed so far: it was piloted through Second Reading in about 80 minutes and, as was mentioned earlier, it went through Committee in just 11 minutes. My hon. Friend no doubt felt very pleased about that, but I have to question the speed with which the Bill passed through Committee. I make no criticism of the Members who served on the Committee, but, as has been mentioned, no amendments whatsoever were tabled in Committee. It is also worth placing on the record that although my hon. Friend was obviously present in Committee, as was the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), and seven other hon. Members, there were several Members missing: the hon. Members for Clacton (Mr Carswell), for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay). It is particularly noteworthy that my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), who had quite a lot to say about this Bill on Second Reading, missed the cut, as they say in golf, when it came to selecting the Committee members. Had he made the cut, some of the matters we will be touching on this morning might have been dealt with then.
I fear that the number and nature of the amendments before us today suggest that matters were somewhat glossed over in Committee. As evidence of that, I cite the transcript of the Second Reading debate on 25 November last year. That debate contained several references to things being ironed out in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said:
“I understand that hon. Members have raised concerns today, and they are exactly the kind of points that I would be more than happy for us to consider in Committee.”
My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset said:
“There will be some issues to be teased out in Committee”.
He then doubled up on that when referring to the question of what constitutes related documents. He said:
“I am absolutely certain that the issue will be teased out in Committee”. —[Official Report, 25 November 2016; Vol. 617, c. 1200-03.]
Well, I am sorry to say that it was not.
The purpose of my amendment is to clarify the terminology used in this Bill, and to avoid any possibility of confusion in the future. I hope that, after I have spent a few minutes advancing the arguments for the importance of my amendment, it will be accepted, because I believe that its inclusion would strengthen the Bill. It is not what I would term a wrecking amendment, and I have tabled it in the best possible spirit. This is a short Bill, and my amendment to clause 1 simply seeks to put in the Bill what is inferred from the explanatory notes and the briefing papers, which I believe is the intention of the Bill.
The first three subsections of section 26 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 state:
(1) At each audit of accounts under this Act, other than an audit of accounts of a health service body, any persons interested may—
(a) inspect the accounting records for the financial year to which the audit relates and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers, receipts and other documents relating to those records, and
(b) make copies of all or any part of those records or documents.
(2) At the request of a local government elector for any area to which the accounts relate, the local auditor must give the elector, or any representative of the elector, an opportunity to question the auditor about the accounting records.
(3) The local auditor’s reasonable costs of complying with subsection (2) are recoverable from the relevant authority to which the accounts relate.
That is the underlying provision in statute that my hon. Friend’s Bill seeks to amend. It is important to bear it in mind, however, that that Act was itself a consolidating Act of a previous consolidating Act—namely, the Audit Commission Act 1998. It is important to remember that reference was made to a previous Act, as we shall see when we look at the leading case involved.
I want to talk now about the bodies that are covered by the 2014 Act. It covers a number of relevant authorities, which are set out in schedule 2 to the Act. For example, it covers county, district, borough and parish councils, combined authorities, police and crime commissioners, passenger transport executives and national parks authorities. At that time, it also covered the Greater London Authority. The bodies covered by the Act will inevitably produce a wide variety of stories that journalists might wish to pursue.
The leading case relating to this matter is that of R. (on the application of HTV Ltd) v. Bristol City Council. The House of Commons Library briefing on this Bill refers to that case, and the explanatory notes to the Bill mention the fact that it was this Bill that first identified the problem in the earlier legislation. We must bear it in mind that, although that case took place in 2004, it refers to the previous Act and not to the current Act that is being amended.
Ah, a dilemma. I will give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.
My hon. Friend is making a fascinating contribution. Although “citizen journalist” is referred to in the rubric of clause 1, there is no definition of it; there is only a definition of “journalist”. Does he agree that that rather suggests that there was originally other material in clause 1 that was cut out as a result of negotiations between our hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills and the Department, and that the Department failed to observe that there was no longer any definition of “citizen journalist” and amend the Bill accordingly?
There may be some reason for why there is no definition of “citizen journalist” in the Bill, but I must admit that I am unaware of what that reason might be. What I can say, before I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), is that the Bill’s explanatory notes state in paragraph 4:
“Accordingly, we are seeking to extend the definition of ‘any persons interested’ in section 26(1) of the Act”—
the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014—
“to include journalists, including ‘citizen journalists’”.
Crucially, paragraph 4 goes on to state that “citizen journalists” means
“bloggers and others who scrutinise local authorities but who may not be accredited members of the press to enable them to access a wider range of accounting material in order to report and publish their findings so that it is available to local electors in an area, thus providing them with information that will enable them to better hold their local council to account.”
Who can disagree with that? It seems an entirely laudable aim, and it is rather disappointing that that laudable aim was not carried through on to the face of the Bill. That is what my amendment seeks to do.
Where do social media fit into my hon. Friend’s wide definition of the term “journalist,” particularly with regard to Facebook and Twitter? If he is basically saying that the term covers anyone who wants to publish anything on the internet, it seems to me that anybody, anywhere can publish on Twitter or Facebook, or whatever. Will that fall within his definition? Does his definition of journalism cover any member of the public? That brings us back to amendment 2, moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope).
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention because he touches on what I will cover in my remaining remarks on amendment 1. There is a distinction to be drawn, because although I agree that my wide definition would, on the face of it, give a very large number of people the right to go and inspect the accounts, the definition does require some publication on the internet. If somebody wanted to go for their own private interest, perhaps for academic research, they would not be included without there being such a publication. There would have to be some element of publication on the internet, and I make no apology at all for my definition covering a wide category of people, because I want to make it as wide as possible.
Just to clarify, as I am still not entirely clear, does that mean that publication on social media such as Twitter would fall within my hon. Friend’s definition of journalism?
In short, yes—I am absolutely clear about that—because my definition refers to publication on a website. If a person publishes something on their Twitter account, it is possible to look them up using the web address and to scroll back through their tweets to see what they said yesterday, a month ago or a year ago. It is published for all time on the internet.
I am not unsympathetic to my hon. Friend’s point. The only issue I would raise, and it may be an added complication, is that many Twitter profiles, as we all know too well, are anonymous. We would have no idea who is behind such publications. Is there any implication in amendment 1 that, in defining “journalist”, the public should have the right to know who is publishing the particular material?
My hon. Friend raises a good point that I had not previously considered. On the one hand, I agree with him that it is important that individuals should know who is putting such information out there. On the other hand, if it is an anonymous Twitter account, or if the user’s identity has been protected for some reason, I would be inclined to trust the public to treat any published information with a high degree of caution because they would not be able to know its source. Although I would defend the right of anyone to publish such information —this comes back to the question of fake news raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch—the problem with such accounts is that, because they are not accredited to any recognised journalistic outlet, members of the public should be cautious about what they read on them. That does not detract from my fundamental point that the mere fact of information being published on what we refer to with the shorthand “social media” should not stop it being regarded as having been published.
In the past, things were published in a daily newspaper and that was it. There is the old saying about today’s newspaper being tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, and I am old enough to remember when that was true.
Does my hon. Friend accept that even in newspapers some items are anonymous? For many years there was a column in the Daily Express called “William Hickey,” but there was no such person.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comment, which supports my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. The mere fact of anonymity should not preclude publication, but it should then be up to the individual reader to decide what weight to give the information or news item in a column. Of course, the law would apply equally to printed material under the 2014 Act.
In answer to my hon. Friend, things can be published anonymously in a newspaper, not just on the internet. We often see letters in newspapers saying “name and address withheld.” Information can be put into the public domain without any indication of who has put it there.
Amendment 1 would broaden the scope of what is termed “journalistic material” to ensure that news websites in all media formats are included. The world of journalism is changing and evolving, and it is important in a free society that different viewpoints can be freely expressed and that journalists have the freedom to go about their work.
The public affairs and software company Vuelio listed the top 10 political blogs in the UK as of June 2016, and in first place was Guido Fawkes. It was followed by political websites of all persuasions, including Wings Over Scotland, which I cite for the benefit of our friends from Scotland—the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) has left her place. The list also included LabourList, Left Foot Forward, Political Scrapbook, Political Betting, ConservativeHome, Slugger O’Toole, Liberal Democrat Voice and Labour Uncut. All aspects of the political spectrum are covered by political blogs.
The number of viewers watching a programme, the number of readers of a newspaper and the number of visitors to a website should not, of itself, be the criterion by which we determine whether something is valuable. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch made the interesting comment that if something is published on a website that only has a readership within the area of Christchurch and Bournemouth, that would be sufficient to meet the definition of publication. It does not have to be a national publication because, by definition, we are talking about local bodies and local councils. It seems more important to consider the quality of the readership, rather than its number or location. It might be more relevant to communicate something to 100 people in the locality than to 10,000 people who live somewhere else in the country, so we cannot purely look at the numbers when deciding this.
We need to bear in mind not only written publication and communication by social media and on the internet, but the fact that we are moving into an age of video bloggers—vloggers. I have therefore tried not to be too prescriptive about what constitutes a news outlet and my amendment simply specifies “on any website”. With modern technology, it is easy for anyone to produce their own reports and put them on the internet for others to view. Last year, research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism suggested that 51% of people with online access use social media as a news source. That is a fairly high proportion, but 28% of 18 to 24-years-olds—the younger generation, whom we want to get involved in the political process—cited social media as their main news source; nowadays this is where people get their news. More of that age group cited social media as their main news source than cited television—its figure was only 24%. It is important that this legislation reflects that changing landscape in journalism. We have to accept that in an evolving social media world the definition of “a journalist” will inevitably change over time. My amendment seeks to future-proof the Bill, which is why it stresses the words
“any website on the internet”.
I am a little concerned about my hon. Friend’s amendment, because I think it is restrictive. In terms of hard-copy publications, it refers only to “a newspaper or magazine”. Would it therefore not exclude a parliamentary candidate who was seeking to root out local corruption and wanted to publish in an election leaflet?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention, and I fear my definition might exclude that, which may be why my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch tabled an amendment to include “politician” in the definition. I would hope that any would-be politician—any election candidate nowadays—would have access to social media and their own website and so would be able to use the fact that they were going to publish on that website as reason to inspect the documents.
Let me try to pre-empt some further criticisms that may be made of my amendment that relate to the definitions of “internet” and “website”. The definition of “internet” is:
“A global computer network providing a variety of information and communication facilities, consisting of interconnected networks using standardized communication protocols.”
Alternatively, the “net”, as the internet is often referred to, is defined as
“a worldwide system of computer networks—a network of networks in which users at any one computer can, if they have permission, get information from any other computer”.
My hon. Friend says that there is no ambiguity, but clause 1’s title refers to “citizen journalists”, yet the clause contents refer only to “journalists”, not to “citizen journalists”. That creates confusion, does it not? Why are we not just talking about journalists and then defining “journalists” in subsection (3)?
To be fair, my amendment does not refer to “citizen journalists”—only the clause title does, although the term is used in the notes and the briefings. With hindsight, I think this should be deleted from the clause title, because it leads people down a cul-de-sac, as they will think a bit is missing from the Bill and will wonder where the definition of “citizen journalists” is. As I said, I decided that rather than trying to define that, it would be better to extend the existing definition of “a journalist”. Perhaps it would have been better to define—somehow— what a “citizen journalist” is, but I was conscious that a number of colleagues objected on Second Reading to the reference to “citizen”, because we are all subjects of Her Majesty. For that reason, I felt it was not sensible to incorporate the term “citizen journalists” in legislation, and I would prefer it if those words were struck from the Bill.
My amendment deals with whether payment being made for a newspaper or magazine, or for access to a website, should affect the situation. I have made it clear that that should have no bearing on whether someone, whether or not a citizen journalist, should have the right to access the accounts of their local council or other body covered by this legislation. The Bill makes it clear that it matters not whether the journalist is paid or unpaid, but I thought it was equally important to clarify this issue about payment to access the site.
The more I reflect on my hon. Friend’s amendment, the more unsatisfactory I think it is. Why is he apparently discriminating against television journalists? Many journalists, such as Michael Crick, might want to prepare a news piece for broadcast in a television programme, not for release in a magazine or newspaper, or on the internet. Why are television journalists excluded from his amendment?
I do not intend to exclude anybody. Nowadays, all the broadcasters have websites. They would not necessarily need to publish or broadcast online, but I am not aware of any broadcasters that do not have websites. Perhaps my right hon. Friend is aware of some, but I would have thought it very simple for any broadcaster, faced with a council using the argument advanced by my right hon. Friend as a shield, to say, “In any event, we will be publishing it on our website.”
To reinforce my hon. Friend’s point, all TV channels can be accessed via the internet these days, so really they all publish on the internet as well. If I read his amendment correctly, it talks about what is included; it does not necessarily refer to excluding other things. It is really an enabling amendment, which I hope will give some comfort to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight).
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because it is important to note that the amendment says “and includes”; I have tried not to exclude any other options but merely to clarify. I hope that that will be noted by the Bill’s promoter and the Minister, who I fear may have some reservations about my amendment. I hope they will concentrate and reflect on that intervention from my hon. Friend.
I wish to comment briefly on several other amendments, but I am understandably concerned that I advance the best possible case for my own. I hope I have been able to satisfy all those with concerns about my amendment and that I have set their minds at ease. I note that the Bill’s promoter has not sought to contest my amendment in any way during my remarks. I sincerely hope that, when she speaks, she will indicate her willingness to accept it in the spirit in which it was tabled. It is not a wrecking amendment; it merely seeks to achieve what her explanatory notes to the Bill say and extend the cover to citizen journalists and bloggers to enable them to inspect the accounts of local authorities.
I wish now to deal with the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and make it clear which of them I do and do not support. His amendment 2, as on the amendment paper, would essentially mean that virtually anyone would be able to make use of the powers in the Bill. I am happy to support that, although it is perhaps a touch ambitious, given the views expressed so far during the Bill’s progress by its promoter and the Minister.
My hon. Friend has suggested several other options for the House to consider, including, in amendment 3, extending the access to include politicians. As I made clear in my intervention earlier, I have some concerns about the fact that the word “politician” is not defined anywhere in the Bill, but I have no objection at all to the general proposition of extending the scope from journalists to politicians.
Amendment 4 deals with the position of non-domestic ratepayers, which is particularly important as we move into an era in which we are going back towards the localisation of business rates. That move will inevitably lead businesses within an area to take more interest in what is going on in their local authority, so I wholeheartedly support the amendment.
Amendments 5, 6 and 7 give the House the opportunity to choose between the Bill applying to journalists who are accredited, professional or qualified. We heard from my hon. Friend earlier that his preferred option would be for it to apply to accredited journalists, as per amendment 5. I am happy to go along with my hon. Friend for the reasons he set out.
Amendment 8 would remove the definition of a journalist entirely. As that would, of course, be in direct contravention of my amendment, I would oppose it and press my own instead.
My hon. Friend is galloping on at such a speed that he rather skipped over amendment 3. Does he share my concern that it might be defective because it refers to a politician, the definition of which is someone who is professionally involved in politics, especially someone who holds an elected office? That might rule out an aspiring politician who is a candidate but is yet to be elected.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. He might have missed my intervention, but I made that point earlier in the debate. I entirely agree that there is a difficulty with not defining the term “politician” to make it clear that someone who aspires to elected office should be included, because they are as likely as anyone to want to carry out investigative work, study the accounts to get to the bottom of them, and see whether there is anything in there that they need to bring to the public’s attention.
Amendment 9 is as on the amendment paper. It would extend to section 26 of the 2014 Act the same conditions set out in section 25(3) of that Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has again struck on something that is worthy of the House’s consideration. I am not sure whether he wishes to press the amendment to a vote but, should he so wish, I would certainly consider supporting it.
To reinforce that point on clinical commissioning groups, CCGs have a veto over the use of procedures for people living within their areas. Those vetoes are often controversial and are justified on the basis of cost. If people cannot examine the cost bases of decisions, it is difficult to hold CCGs to account.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. There would be considerable interest from local residents in accessing all the accounts of all health service bodies.
My hon. Friend’s amendment 11 would extend the period in which inspections can be carried out beyond 30 days. I have heard no explanation as to why the period is 30 days and not 60, 25 or another number. I entirely agree that no logical reason has been advanced as to why we should have a 30-day limit. I would support him on the amendment.
Amendments 12, 13 and 14 are more technical amendments dealing with commercial confidentiality. I welcome amendment 13 and recommend it to the House. The fact that something was commercially sensitive in the past should not prevent the accounts and associated paperwork from being inspected now.
Those are my views on my hon. Friend’s amendments, but I reiterate that I commend my amendment 1 to the House. I hope this is not the case, but if the amendment is opposed, that will draw into question everything said about the Bill’s extending access to a wider number of people and giving information to the public. I have sought only to put in the Bill what the explanatory notes say the Bill is about.
At the very least, if for whatever reason my amendment does not find favour with the promoter of the Bill, I would first be interested to know why. Secondly, the public would be suspicious of the Bill. Let us not forget that the Bill was brought before the House because the initial Acts were defective. I advise the House to be wary of any arguments advanced by the Government against my amendment, because Governments of various hues down the years have led us to the position we are in this morning. I have attempted to be clear and open. One can argue over individual words, but I submit to the House that my amendment is perfectly clear. It seeks to give clarity to the phrase “citizen journalist”, which, whether we like it or not, appears in the heading of clause 1. I commend my amendment to the House.
I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), who have given a compelling and comprehensive account of their amendments. I rise to adjudicate between them. It is a rare occurrence when my two hon. Friends come at things from slightly different perspectives, but I sense that they have their differences on the Bill. I will do my best to be fair to their amendments in my adjudication.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North in congratulating the Bill’s promoter, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), on getting her Bill to this stage. It is a good Bill, but if it were to incorporate some of the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for Bury North, it would be a better Bill. The whole purpose of the Report stage is to try to improve a Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) is an excellent Minister, and I hope that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills have listened carefully to my hon. Friends, and that they appreciate, on reflection, that the Bill could be better. I will try to set out which of the amendments the Minister and my hon. Friend should be minded to accept. If they are minded not to accept them, I encourage my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for Bury North to consider pressing them to a Division to test the will of the House.
My hon. Friends have made compelling cases for some but not all of their amendments, which is where I will focus my attention. Amendment 2 is the lead amendment in the group—rightly so, in many respects. It is my contention that it is the most powerful amendment in the group and if my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is tempted to press any of his amendments to a Division, I hope he focuses his attention on amendment 2, which states:
“Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out from ‘after’ to the end of the subsection and insert ‘any members of the public who are registered to vote in local elections in the United Kingdom’”.
In simple terms, my hon. Friend is basically saying that everybody in the country should have a right to know what is going on in local authorities. His compelling case was based on what is happening in his local authority and the neighbouring authority in Bournemouth. Clearly—it seems obvious to me—if two local authorities are potentially merging, a member of the public in one should have the absolute right to full access to all the information from the other to assess whether it is in their best interests for the merger to go ahead. Without access to the information, how on earth can they be in a position to make that judgment? That completely flies in the face of democracy.
It would be perverse in many respects if, in respect of my hon. Friend’s local authority area, the editor of the Evening Standard, who was mentioned earlier, was able to access the documents relating to his neighbouring council by virtue of being a journalist—a fine and leading one, at that, as the editor of a prestigious newspaper—but my hon. Friend’s local residents were unable to get the same information. That would surely be a perverse outcome, and it cannot really be the one envisaged when the Bill was in its infancy. I do not see what possible argument there could be against his amendment. If we believe that, in extending transparency, local authorities can rightly be held to account and the public can have greater awareness of what is going on, why do we not give them all the opportunity to see the information for themselves rather than relying on journalists to do the job for them?
I agree with the principle of extending the range of people who have access to these documents. However, the problem is that this proposal, while a step in the right direction, is not sufficient because, as we all know, the newspaper industry, and local newspapers in particular, are going through a pretty torrid time financially at the moment—I do not think there is any secret about that. With things moving on to the internet, newspapers find it very difficult to adjust and to monetise their content. We therefore tend to find in many local areas that, unfortunately, despite the best efforts of local newspaper groups, they are not increasing the number of journalists who would get access to all these documents and go through them with a fine-tooth comb; they are actually shedding journalists, and they are being spread more thinly. It is slightly naive to hope that, on the back of having given local journalists access to this information, all this stuff will suddenly be in the public domain, because I am not entirely sure that the journalistic trade has the capacity to do that. We will therefore be enabling something that is very worth while but which may not happen in practice. If we want this information to be in the public domain so that the public are able to hold local authorities to account, we cannot just rely on journalists because it is difficult to see how they will have the capacity. We have to allow the public to do it themselves.
I do not see why anybody should not be able to have access to this information. In practice, the chances of somebody in Shipley gratuitously showing an interest in the local authority in Christchurch are very remote. Nobody is going to be inundated with requests for that kind of scrutiny, but residents in Christchurch may well want to know what is happening in Bournemouth, which is just down the road, and they should absolutely have the right to inspect and see whether the council is behaving in the way it should. I was rather shocked to hear the allegations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch about the conflicts of interest of the leader of Bournemouth Council. Without going over the detail myself, it certainly did not sound very good. It is absolutely right that local residents in adjoining authorities should be able to know what is going on.
I genuinely do not see why my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills or the Minister would want to resist this greater transparency and scrutiny, because surely that is the whole purpose of the Bill. In his amendment, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is, in effect, taking the Bill to its logical conclusion. I am pretty sure that if we do not do this now, there will be another private Member’s Bill further down the road introducing the measures that he proposes, because there is a clear logic to what he is trying to achieve. I believe in transparency, and I think it is very difficult to argue against it. If we are to go down the route of transparency, let us have full transparency so that nobody can claim that they did not have an opportunity to access any detailed information that they wanted to see.
My hon. Friend mentioned the shortage of local reporters and the pressures on local newspapers. Does he recall that only last month the BBC said that it was setting aside £8 million a year to pay for 150 reporters to work for local news organisations across the country? Is not that stark evidence of the plight of many of our local newspapers?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not want to get too side-tracked, Madam Deputy Speaker, and you would not allow me to, but it is fair to say that the BBC does not help in these matters because it pinches local content and shoves it on its website free of charge, making it difficult for local papers to monetise their work. I welcome what the BBC said, but I do not know whether it will work in practice in the way that is envisaged, because what I see, Madam Deputy Speaker—I do not know what is happening in Derbyshire or in other parts of the country—is local papers still shedding staff rather than recruiting staff. I have not noticed any difference in that regard since the announcement was made. We will have to see what happens. However, as my hon. Friend says, we cannot rely on local newspapers being able to fill this void. I think he is on to something with amendment 2, which is the strongest of the group.
Amendment 3, also tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, mentions
“including any politician or journalist”.
I got the sense that my hon. Friend felt that, between them, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North had torpedoed his amendment with regard to the definition of “politician”, which is clearly unsatisfactory. As they both said, to include people who are elected but exclude those standing for election would be unacceptable, because everyone should be on a level playing field. Because amendment 2 is so good, it rather exposes the weaknesses in my hon. Friend’s other amendments. He seems to be making the best of the bad job, working on the premise that if amendment 2 is not accepted, let us see what else we can do to try to make the Bill better. I think he should be focusing his fire on amendment 2; the others do not really cut the mustard.
My hon. Friend is also on to something with amendment 4, whereby he wants to include non-domestic ratepayers. He is absolutely right about that. I suppose that if he had not tabled amendment 2, I would have supported amendment 4, but if we go for amendment 2 we do not need to bother with amendment 4, because it rather weakens what he is trying to do with his lead amendment.
In amendments 5, 6 and 7, my hon. Friend is trying to make the best of a bad job with his “accredited”, “professional” and “qualified” definitions of journalists. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North pointed out that those were not good enough, and I accept that. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is a rather unenthusiastic supporter of those three amendments, but I appreciate his tabling them because they have prompted a debate to consider whether they have any merit. I think we have generally concluded that they do not, but I am grateful to him for allowing us to look at them.
Amendment 8 is about removing the definition of “journalist”. Again, that amendment has merit, but amendment 2 rather supersedes it.
I wish to touch on amendment 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North. I am interested in both the amendment and his defence of it. He made some very good points. I moved between supporting it, opposing it and supporting it again as he was making his remarks. He certainly put up a very good defence of it. I agree with the thrust of what he is trying to achieve, which is to extend the definition of “journalist” to cover as many people as possible. That is the common theme of what those of us who have spoken so far are trying to achieve. We want as many people as possible to have access to this information. The question is how we best achieve that.
Amendment 1 was a rather imaginative way of effectively trying to include virtually everybody. In some respects, it makes everybody a journalist, including those on Twitter and Facebook. I am not entirely sure how many people are not on Twitter or Facebook—they are the sensible ones as far as I am concerned—but probably not that many. I am not on Facebook, but I am on Twitter. I regard going on Twitter as probably one of the worst things I have ever done in my life. I have about 16,000 followers, all of whom hate me. It is very interesting to read what they have to say, but it all seems rather pointless. They can hurl as much abuse as they like—it does not bother me—but I am not entirely sure that it gets us anywhere. My hon. Friend wants to include those people in his definition of a journalist. As somebody who always wanted to be a journalist and actually did the National Council for the Training of Journalists course at Sheffield college, I am not entirely convinced that those of us on that course would think that any old moron on Twitter should be able to describe themselves as a journalist. None the less, that is the age that we are in. There is a lot of merit in what my hon. Friend says, and it would be bizarre in this day and age to exclude those people who publish material in those ways. That is the way of the world, and we must accept that whether we like it or not. It seems that he is working within the spirit of the Bill, and he made that clear during his remarks.
As my hon. Friend was speaking, I saw that the Bill said that
“‘journalist’ means any person who produces for publication journalistic material (whether paid to do so or otherwise).”
In the explanatory notes, it says that it covers journalists,
“including ‘citizen journalists’, that is bloggers and others who scrutinise local authorities but who may not be accredited members of the press to enable them to access a wider range of accounting material in order to report and publish their findings so that it is available to local electors in an area, thus providing them with information that will enable them to better hold their local council to account.”
What this Bill seeks to do is what my hon. Friend’s amendment states. I look forward to what the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills have to say in response. I cannot work out whether there is any reason for my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills not to accept the amendment, because it seems to be the thrust of what she is trying to achieve, or whether there is no point to the amendment, because it will already be covered by the Bill. I cannot work out which of those two it is; it may well be an element of both.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North is trying to make sure that it is clear who is covered. It may well be that these people are already covered, but he wants to make that clear in the Bill. If that is what is happening, I do not see why anyone would want to oppose it. If all he is doing is clarifying what is intended anyway, it seems that we are all in agreement. I look forward to hearing whether amendment 1 is what this Bill is supposedly doing anyway.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch made a very good case for all his amendments. I just wish to touch on amendment 10, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North called the most “controversial” one, and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch called the most “radical” one. I describe it as radical rather than controversial. I am not entirely sure why it would be controversial, but I do accept that it is radical. The amendment would ensure that the provision includes health service bodies. I would be very interested to hear the argument against what my hon. Friend is trying to do. Why would we not think that there should be full scrutiny of the accounts of a health service body? Why would we want to focus just on local councils? Why should other local health authorities not be subject to the same rigours? Surely no one could suggest that it is utterly terrible for a local authority to be wasting or misappropriating money, but that it is absolutely fine for a local health authority to do so.
If we want to be sure that local authorities are not doing things that they should not be doing, and that there is full accountability to the people whom they are supposed to serve and to the people who may take an interest in what they are doing, the same rules must apply to a local health authority. I cannot see why anyone would argue against that. Again, I am interested to know what the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills have to say on that and on why they think that one is more important than the other.
In many respects, one could argue that people might be more concerned about what is happening in their local health authority, rather than in their local authority. It may well be more important to their day-to-day lives. Again, the amendment is certainly radical, but I cannot see why it should be controversial. Many people would be astonished that a local health authority is not already included in the Bill. I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for being absolutely forensic when scrutinising legislation, and this House would be much poorer without him doing so. It goes to show why Bills should not go through this place on the nod, and why we should have proper scrutiny. Lots of things come up in the course of that scrutiny that people have not considered. I do not blame my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills for not including these measures. Indeed, it is why we have a debate and why we have amendments. The wisdom of 650 is quite clearly better than the wisdom of just one. Other people think of things that we would never have thought of. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch does so on a regular basis, and I commend him for that.
In summary, my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for Bury North have done the House a great service by seeking to improve the Bill. Anybody can see that they are not trying to ruin it; they are trying to make it better. It is a good Bill so far, but it would certainly be improved by some of these amendments. My final analysis is that if my hon. Friends are to press any of their amendments to a Division—with your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, of course—they should do so with amendments 2 and 10, because those amendments are the most powerful. The Bill represents an improvement, but amendments 2 and 10 would turn it into something that will be very good for the public and will stand the test of time. I wish the Bill well, and hope that it will pass with those amendments.
I thank the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for introducing the Bill. As someone who has brought a private Member’s Bill to the House, I know the hard work that goes into it. Her Bill has got far further than my Bill did, and I wish her every success in taking it further.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Government, in place, I am sad to say, of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who has responsibility for local government. I know that he would be delighted to be here, were he not otherwise engaged. I, too, would be delighted if he were here, knowing as I do of his passion for the Bill.
I will, of course, give way to my fellow east Yorkshire colleague.
Has my hon. Friend any information to relate to the House about why not a single Liberal Democrat is here?
Sadly not, other than that the public seemed to diminish Liberal Democrat numbers somewhat at the last general election, proving once again that members of the public are very sensible individuals, on the whole.
I welcome the opportunity to comment briefly on the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope), and on the important points made thus far. I had the privilege of stepping in for the Local Government Minister in Committee, when I offered the Government’s support for the important principles behind the Bill.
The amendments have been tabled with the best of intentions—the Bill’s promoter, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), will deal with them in more detail—but I want to set out the Government’s view on why we do not think agreeing to them would be a good idea. The Bill’s virtue is its simplicity. By seeking to clarify what is meant in the legislation by where material may be published, amendment 1 may unintentionally—we know that it is unintentional from the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North—narrow the places where such articles may be published. Sometimes, a less precise phrase in law permits a helpfully wider interpretation, and I believe that is the case here.
I have no doubt that a similar argument would have been advanced when the original Audit Commission Act 1998—the legislation that led to the court case from which this Bill arises—was going through this House, so there is actually a strong argument for trying to be as clear as possible in the Bill about what is intended.
I do not agree. Given its reference to the internet and websites, my hon. Friend’s amendment could unintentionally and unhelpfully narrow the interpretation.
Hon. Members may be interested to know that the concepts of journalistic material and publication already appear in legislation many times—although to my mind, “publication” in particular is a simple, plain English definition needing no further clarification. For example, “journalistic material” appears in section 264(2) of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, as well as section 13 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, and “publication” has similar antecedents.
It is fair to say, however, that not everybody who will seek to use the Bill will necessarily be familiar with the concepts and interpretation of those terms as they are used in it. I have heard what my hon. Friends have said and will therefore commit to ensuring that any accompanying explanatory notes are amended, if the Bill passes to the other place, to clarify those points. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North referred to journalists as opposed to citizen journalists. The definition of a journalist includes citizen journalists, which is why a separate definition has not been required.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills is keen to get to her feet and respond in detail to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, so in the interests of brevity, I want to concentrate on two issues he raised—or, on reflection, maybe three. Amendment 2 would be likely to impose a new burden on local authorities, because we would be asking them to make their records available to everyone, which is something that they have not previously been required to do under the 2014 Act. That would therefore need to be funded by the Government, whereas we are seeking to extend the existing right to a defined group of people, and that would not be considered in the same light.
I heard what my hon. Friend said about amendment 10 regarding health bodies. I cannot speak on behalf of other Departments, but as Members of Parliament we are all concerned about transparency in the health system. The stated intention of the 2014 Act and the response to the consultation on it did not include health bodies. It would therefore be wrong to include those in the scope of the Bill.
My hon. Friend was pretty succinct in rejecting amendment 2. Does he have any evidence of how much it would cost local authorities if it became part of the law, and will he seek to make a comparison between that cost and the pay-off for the chief executive of Bournemouth Borough Council?
I have listened with interest to my hon. Friend’s comments about the chief executive of Bournemouth, but—perhaps to the delight of my officials—I will not say anything about that decision, especially in the light of the other issues affecting the potential reorganisation in Dorset at this time. Needless to say, extending such a right more generally to any elector across the United Kingdom might have a substantial impact, and it is likely that local authorities and public bodies would ask the Government for additional resources. I cannot give my hon. Friend a figure—I want to be honest with him at the Dispatch Box—but there is no doubt that extending the right in such a way would come with additional burdens.
Further to my hon. Friend’s comments on amendments 12 to 14, paragraphs 31 and 32 of the local authority transparency code already require councils to publish quarterly spending and procurement information. He referred to tender documents, and the code requires the details of every invitation to tender for contracts to provide goods or services with a value that exceeds £5,000 to be published, as well as the details of any contract, commissioned activity, purchase order, framework agreement and other legally enforceable agreement with a value that exceeds £5,000. Such documents are of course available to anybody.
Last May, the Government consulted on updating the code to provide an opportunity for greater town hall transparency—Members on both sides of the House, but certainly Conservative Members, want that—and for enhanced scrutiny of the use of public assets and resources, including through the better comparison of data. In respect of contractual information, the consultation proposed to standardise the data and, importantly, to make comparisons easier through their publication in a central source. We hope to publish our response to the consultation shortly, and I hope that it will abate some of my hon. Friend’s concerns about local transparency.
I want to deal quickly with an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who is not now in his place because he is on his way back to his constituency. He mentioned local government reorganisation in Lincolnshire and stated that one council is trying to take over another. I want to make it clear for the record that North Lincolnshire Council has not proposed to take over any other neighbouring authority. The Government have received no proposals of such a nature. All that is happening is that across Lincolnshire in the broadest sense—the county and the two unitary areas—a conversation is going on between council leaders about how the future of local government will look. It is important to provide that clarification as the matter was raised during this debate.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills will address some of the amendments in a moment, but I am confident that my hon. Friends the Members for Bury North and for Christchurch will respond, in their usual way, with reasonableness and, as I think that I got from their speeches, with an understanding that what lies behind the Bill is a good thing—it will extend a right to increase transparency—so I urge them not to press their amendments but to enable the Bill to pass to the other place. I look forward to the further progress of the Bill this afternoon.
I am very pleased to be able to speak again on my private Member’s Bill. As my hon. Friends have explained, no amendments were moved in Committee on 7 February—the passage of the Bill through Committee was quite swift—so the Bill has been reported to the House unamended.
The amendments tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope) are therefore late entries to the debate, but I was very keen to listen to their arguments. They have provided some additional scrutiny and additional debate in the Chamber.
I should have covered this point in my speech, and I apologise for not having done so. I do not think we should go solely by that parameter. What if a local Facebook group contains 5,000 local interested residents? Surely that constitutes publication to interested people. It is just as valid as publishing material in a newspaper that no one reads.
That is a fair point, but what I am driving at is the difference between a small “invite only” Facebook group, which the Bill will not cover, and a broader, open Facebook group. The Bill is about transparency and openness, not about “invite only” groups.
The definition is also unlikely to include material sent as a direct message via Twitter, Facebook or email. It might be expected to include people such as Guido Fawkes, a blogger whom most of us know of, but not a campaign group such as 38 Degrees or SumOfUs.
I believe that the aim of amendment 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, is to clarify the fact that the Bill would cover all journalists who might wish to publish their articles in a newspaper or on the internet, irrespective of whether there were charges. Let me reassure my hon. Friend that the Bill, as drafted, would include an article in a newspaper or magazine or on the internet, either on a website or in a blog, whether paid for or free, through use of the words “journalistic material” and “for publication”. In fact, by specifying where such material is published, he may be limiting the potential forums in which it is placed, as a blog or a tweet may not be part of a specific website.
The issue is important, because it is necessary to keep up with the times and use terminology that incorporates the many and varied realms of the internet, such as Twitter and the “blogosphere” . Some Members may fear that that might mean that anyone could say that they blog or tweet, but the onus would be on such people to show that their work had been made available in a sufficiently public forum in order to prove their credentials as citizen journalists before access could be given.
My hon. Friend refers to a “sufficiently public forum.” How many members of the public would be required to meet that criterion?
What I am trying to set out here is the difference between information that goes on to a private forum—such as open Facebook sites, direct emails and Twitter—and the more open social media that citizen bloggers would be proving that they are on. At its heart, this Bill is about giving citizen bloggers access to local government accounts, so that they can put information into the public domain and the electors can then conduct further scrutiny if they so wish.
I am concerned that we might end up getting ourselves into a muddle. Many journalistic publications are private-subscription; the reader has to subscribe privately in order to get information from The Spectator, for example, so it is not in that sense public. I am therefore not entirely sure why we are distinguishing between a magazine publication that is a private subscription magazine, which it seems to me would still be covered by the Bill, and other private publications that my hon. Friend is seeking to exclude from the Bill. Why cannot we just include everything?
There are many sites that do not require a subscription, and I am endeavouring to explain the difference and address the need to ensure that the citizen blogger is someone who is getting information for the greater use of the public, rather than just for a private-only social media group or direct Twitter.
I want to move on now and speak to amendments 9, 10 and 11, also tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. On amendment 9, I recognise that he is seeking to achieve comparability with the rights held by electors under section 25(3) of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014. While it is not explicitly included in section 26, because this is a right enshrined in law my view is that a council would be on questionable ground if it tried to charge an interested person to inspect their accounting records, as it would in effect be fettering that right. Furthermore, there are existing powers in the Local Government Act 2003 for an authority to charge for discretionary services—that is, services that it is not under a duty to provide. In facilitating an interested person’s right to inspect documents, an authority would surely not be able to charge, as that person has a right to inspect. In addition, while section 26(1)(b) also gives a right to interested persons to “make copies”, there is no equivalent provision requiring an authority to provide copies to them. This would be a discretionary service, so the authority could be relying on its powers under the 2003 Act to charge for providing copies.
On amendment 10, sections 25 and 26 of the 2014 Act exclude health bodies, because the inspection rights in relation to their accounts do not apply. Health bodies differ in several key respects from other relevant authorities covered by the 2014 Act, not least in the treatment of their accounts, which include separate monitoring arrangements through the NHS and the Department of Health. In addition, the Government’s initial stated intention to act in this respect in their 2014 response to consultation did not include health bodies. It would therefore be wrong to extend these rights now. I hope that provides my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch with some reassurance on amendment 10.
It is my understanding that amendment 11 seeks to extend the right to inspect accounting documents beyond the current accounting year. The primary purpose of these rights at present is to enable the interested persons, which would include a local government elector, to inspect these additional documents so that they have all the information they might need in order to question the auditor and potentially make an objection within the 30 working-day period while the accounts for that year are still open.
Once the accounts have been signed off, the right lapses because the auditor is unable to investigate the question raised or the objection made, so being able to inspect past years’ accounting information becomes an academic exercise. I must also point out that the 30-day period is provided for in secondary legislation, which I believe makes the amendment inappropriate. Again I hope that I have been able to clarify the points that have been raised.
May I begin by thanking the promoter of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton)? She has been assiduous in addressing the amendments that we have tabled. Would that that were always the case. She has also been charming and courteous in how she has dealt with us throughout the proceedings, so it is with some dismay that I say I cannot agree with everything she has said.
Before I go into detail, however, I should like to point out how helpful it has been to hear the views of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce). She supports some of the amendments, which gives me extra enthusiasm and confidence that I am on to a good thing here. I have always been in favour of trying to find consensus across the House and gaining cross-party support. The shadow Minister expressed support for amendment 2 and amendment 10. I am not going to push amendment 10 to a vote, but I certainly hope to do so with amendment 2. We will need to come back to amendment 10, because I think my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills —and indeed the whole House—will agree that there is a strong case for extending those powers to health bodies.
Let me turn to the objection to amendment 2 put forward by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). He said that it would place a new burden on local authorities, which would have to be funded by the Government. In fairness to him, however, he made no bones about the fact that he had no idea of the extent of that burden. He has made no estimate of it. In my submission, it would be relatively small and it would tend to be a burden only for those local authorities that were not already sufficiently transparent and accountable. It is those authorities that would, because of their secrecy, prompt people to try to inspect their books and accounts.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this scrutiny of local authorities would probably lead to their saving more money in their everyday business than it would cost them to implement the provisions in amendment 2?
I absolutely agree. As with all such things, the issue is one of proportionality. There is a balance between the burden on local government and the benefit to the public interest. In the case of amendment 2, the benefit to the public interest far outweighs any miniscule burden on local authorities, even if the argument put forward by my hon. Friend was not accepted by those authorities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said that the Bill does what it says on the tin and talked about wanting to confine the Bill to extending rights to journalists. However, I remind her of the long title of her own Bill. It is a Bill to
“Extend public access to certain local audit documents under section 26 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014.”
It is not limited to journalists. If my hon. Friend had wanted to limit it to journalists, she could have done so when she put down the long title of the Bill. It is sensible that we should take this opportunity to see whether we can make this Bill a bigger, more substantial piece of legislation than it would otherwise be, so I want to press amendment 2 to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Despite having had some previous success with a private Member’s Bill in this place, it is always special to have brought a Bill to its Third Reading. I am particularly pleased to have been able to introduce this Bill because although, as I have said, it is short and simple, it will have an impact nationally in potentially improving the transparency of local councils. I hope it will have an impact within my own local council area of Walsall and will help local journalists there. We have some excellent local newspapers—the Walsall Advertiser, The Express & Star, the Chronicle and the Sutton Coldfield Observer. As I set out at the start, the Bill’s intention is to improve transparency and accountability in both central and local government. This Government have done much to improve that since coming to power, and I am pleased to play my small part in furthering that agenda.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on piloting this Bill through its many stages in the House of Commons. She is fast becoming a master of these private Members’ Bill Fridays, although she is far too bashful to say so. I believe this worthy Bill will really add something to our statute book.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who also contributed on Second Reading, for his kind words. I am grateful to all hon. Members who have played a part in the progress of this Bill. If even one journalist or one citizen journalist uses this power to bring poor spending decisions or untoward expenditure to the attention of local electors so that they can ask questions of the auditor or object to their council’s accounts, thus forcing people to account publicly for their spending decisions, this Bill will have done its part.
In conclusion, I thank all those who have enabled me to get my Bill to Third Reading. I thank those who initially supported it, those who contributed on Second Reading, and those who supported me in Committee as well. I also thank everyone present for giving up yet another precious constituency Friday in a week that has not been the easiest in this place, or in this country. I hope that the Bill’s smooth and speedy passage through this place and into the other place continues, and that it becomes law.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on having taken the Bill so far. As I said on Report, I do not oppose the Bill. I think it could have been so much stronger and more worth while, but that is how it is. Friday business is iterative in nature: once an issue has been ventilated on a Friday, as sure as eggs are eggs, it is probably going to come back on another Friday. Ultimately, the extension of the rights in the Bill to include health bodies and to go beyond journalists is likely to find favour with other Members.
As my hon. Friend said, the Bill is currently limited to extending the powers under section 26 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 to journalists. We are extending them in a climate in which journalists are under a lot of pressure. Perhaps one exception to that is the fact that a new local newspaper has started in Christchurch this week. The title the Christchurch Times has been revived, and edition one is out this week; I look forward to reading a copy when I get back to my constituency later. That shows that local newspapers are not dying or dead.
Will my hon. Friend tell the House whether he has any intention of becoming the editor of this publication?
I am afraid that is commercially confidential. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) says that I am waiting for a better offer. It is really good news that our local news service is going to be strengthened.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the new arrival on the newspaper scene in his constituency is good news. Does he know whether the newspaper in question, being a new arrival, is making use of the new breed of citizen journalists we have been discussing?
I suspect it is probably going to rely on citizen journalists to send it letters and report to real journalists information that they think the newspaper should investigate. I think it is going to have a responsible attitude to ensuring that the news it prints is properly authenticated and cannot be put in the category of fake news, or news the sources of which have not been properly checked out. I regard it as an example of highly responsible journalism.
I think we will find similarly responsible journalism from the additional reporters who are going to be recruited throughout the United Kingdom as a result of the requirement on the BBC to set aside money to pay for local reporters. As I said earlier, the BBC has set aside £8 million a year to pay for 150 reporters who will work for local news organisations, rather than the BBC, throughout the country. I am sure that those reporters will be professional, accredited and responsible journalists, and that they will add to the scrutiny of local democracy throughout the country.
I know from reports that, unfortunately, not all parts of the country are as well served by their local newspapers as we are in Dorset. There are parts of the country, including constituencies and whole local authority areas, in which no proper newspaper operates—certainly not a daily newspaper and, quite often, not even a weekly newspaper. That means that it is very difficult to hold local authorities properly to account.
I have referred to local stories, but how about this headline from 16 January: “Poole council revamp ‘waste of money’ before merger”? The story refers to the fact that the council proposes to spend £250,000 on revamping the civic centre when it also proposes that it should be abolished in favour of a council merger. There is another one from Bournemouth: “Council shuts £15 million bank of Bournemouth after issuing just 22 loans”, which happened just 18 months after it was created. That was another completely haywire scheme that cost local tax payers a lot of money. Nobody has been properly held to account for it.
I could go on, but will not. The Bill could have been so much better than it is, but it is better than nothing and for that I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge—Brownhills. I do not know whether it will find favour in the other place in the short space of time it has to consider it. One of my concerns about Bills going through at this late stage in the Session is that, if the other place is minded to amend them—I hope the Lords is minded to amend this Bill in the light of the debates we have had today—it is often inhibited, and told, “If you amend it, the Bill will not be able to come before the Commons before the end of the Session.” In that context, I hope the Minister in responding to the debate can give an assurance that the Government will provide time to ensure that the Bill will be dealt with by the Commons before the end of the Session if their lordships are minded to amend it in any way, so that that pistol cannot be held to the head of anybody who seeks to amend the Bill in the Lords. If they amend the Bill, it will be the death of it. Having said that, I will support the Bill should there be a Division.
I, too, welcome the Bill in the spirit in which it has been introduced, despite the fact that my attempt to amend it did not meet with the approval of the promoter of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton). As I said at the time, it was not a wrecking amendment but a genuine proposal to try to improve the Bill.
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend on amendment 1 but did not wholly agree with her. The explanatory notes refer to citizen journalists, and the heading of clause 1 includes the words “and citizen journalists”. Her explanation was that journalists includes citizen journalists. If that is the case, why was it thought necessary to go on to say “and citizen journalists” in the title of clause? That needs looking at again, but I am conscious of the important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). I appreciate that, if it were amended in the other place, it would spell the death of the Bill in this Session, unless the Government make time for the Commons to consider any Lords amendments. It is a question of what is more important. Is it more important that we get this legislation right, or do we let it go through in a form that we are not happy with? It is a fine balance. I hope that the answer lies in the Government saying that if the other place does feel that it is appropriate for the Bill to be amended, they will find Government time in which to consider those amendments on the grounds that those in the other place may have read this debate and heard our arguments as to why the Bill would benefit from further clarification. Their lordships may reach a different view from that taken by this House today.
The reason I suggest that it would be appropriate for the Government to find time for any Lords amendments to be considered is that after the Act that this Bill seeks to amend—the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 —was passed, it was put out to consultation by the Department for Communities and Local Government. In December 2014, it published its response, which says at paragraph 4.11 on page 10:
“Government believes that journalists should also be able to inspect accounts and information, in the interests of local people, and therefore intends to legislate at the earliest opportunity to ensure that the definition of ‘persons interested’”,
as defined in section 26 of the 2014 Act,
“is wide enough to enable this.”
That was a very clear commitment by the Government to making this amendment to the legislation, albeit that it is now being introduced in a private Member’s Bill. There is therefore a sound argument as to why they should make this time available.
I wholeheartedly support the general thrust of the Bill. It is right that we should give as much access as possible to those who are “interested”—the phraseology used in the initial legislation, which is now being extended to include journalists. I am sorry that we are not extending that to all electors who can vote in local elections, but the Bill is nevertheless a step in the right direction. It is right that we try to extend the right to inspect the accounts of local government, and all the other bodies listed in schedule 2 of the 2014 Act, to journalists and citizen journalists.
I accept that there is a concern that this might result in those bodies being inundated with requests, as was suggested earlier, but there is no evidence to suggest that that would be the case. I suspect that the answer lies in the legislation, which provides for the bodies to be able to charge for copies of documents that are taken away. We are weighing up two competing interests. The overriding interest is the interest of the public in knowing what is going on. The alternative is to say, “Well, once the accounts are published, there should be no right for anyone to go in and inspect the underlying documents, the books of accounts and so forth.” I do not think that any of us would want to go down that road. I suspect that what we have stumbled on here is probably the best of the options available to us. I would like to have gone further, but, nevertheless, extending the right to journalists is better than nothing. It is now up to journalists to make use of the new power that will be given to them once this Bill becomes law.
It will be interesting to see whether anybody covered by this Bill actually seeks to do what Bristol council did in respect of the 2014 Act and exclude citizen journalists because they are not specifically mentioned other than in the clause title. I hope that does not happen. If anyone tries to do that, I would refer them to the explanatory notes, which makes it very clear that the term “citizen journalists” should include
“bloggers and others who scrutinise local authorities but who may not be accredited member of the press.”
Paragraph 7 of the explanatory notes states:
“As well as accredited members of the press, the term journalist would be extended to cover ‘citizen journalists’, such as bloggers, enabling them to inspect the accounts of a local authority where they are not a local elector so that in publishing their findings they can help enable the public to hold that local authority to account.”
That is the key to the whole Bill. It is about being able to hold elected politicians to account. I trust that when the Bill is considered by the Lords, they will look carefully at the arguments that have been made here and consider whether it is worthy of further amendment. But I hope that the Bill is not amended in the other place unless there is an assurance that the Government will provide time—it will have to be Government time, as there are no more private Members’ days allocated in this Session—for those amendments to be considered.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills for her work in ensuring that the Bill has reached this stage and for the efficient and courteous way that she has handled proceedings. I wish the Bill well.
I do not intend to make more than a few remarks on Third Reading, as this Bill has the support of the Opposition, the Government and the Local Government Association. It is a short, and welcome, piece of legislation which aims to improve transparency and accountability of local public bodies. In an era in which local newspapers are in many places diminishing and in some places do not exist at all, extending transparency of public bodies benefits all of our local democracy.
Indeed, as we devolve more powers and sometimes even funding to local authorities, there is an ever increasing need for greater transparency. There are many other important Bills to be debated today, so I will draw my comments to a close.
I call the Minister.
It is a pleasure, Madam Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] Mr Deputy Speaker, you have changed.
I am still recovering from the exciting debate on Report. I was delighted to be able to contribute to it, as I was to be able to contribute to the debate in Committee. It is also a pleasure to speak on Third Reading on behalf of the Government and once again to offer our support for the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton). I pay tribute to her for getting it this far, and I pay tribute to the other hon. Members who have sponsored and supported it. I associate myself entirely with her comments about how nice it is, after a week that has been difficult for Parliament, to be here looking at the detail of the legislation—doing the job that we are elected to do, and that others tried to prevent us from doing this week.
The Government have supported this Bill from the beginning, and I note the Opposition’s support as well. We have done so because it furthers our ambitions of improving local transparency and accountability by extending this important right to journalists. I pay tribute to the other hon. Members who spoke today, and I associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) about the importance of local newspapers to local transparency and accountability. It would be wrong of me not to mention the excellent work of one of my local papers, the Goole Times, thereby securing my place in it next week. Local newspapers are very important to local democracy and accountability, and I associate myself with everything he said about that.
I will say little more than that, because there is other business to be conducted. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills for bringing forward the Bill, and I congratulate her on its passage unamended through this House. We wish the Bill well in the other place. I understand that she has already secured the support of the noble Baroness Eaton of Cottingley. Without wanting to jinx the Bill, I hope that it will pass into law before the end of the Session. In response to the direct question from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, I am not in a position at this time to make any guarantees about future time, should this Bill be amended in the other place, although the Government’s hope and wish is that it will pass through the other place unamended.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
Further consideration of Bill, not amended in Committee
Inspection of accounting records by journalists and citizen journalists
On 9 February, Bournemouth and Poole councils made a submission to the Secretary of State to incorporate Christchurch Borough Council in a new unitary authority comprising Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch. Although Christchurch is financially sound, the Bournemouth case is based on the need for greater efficiency and effectiveness, which the council says cannot be achieved in any other way.
However, Bournemouth has a local reputation for being profligate, spendthrift and secretive. A topical example is the decision, announced earlier this week, to make the council’s chief executive redundant, which came completely out of the blue. The chief executive is to be made redundant and given a £394,000 pay-off, which comprises £85,000 as six months’ pay, because apparently the council does not want him to work any longer; £63,000 in statutory redundancy pay, although no reason has been given why the post is no longer required; and £246,000 on account of early release of pension funds. I have no criticism of the chief executive, because I think he is on to a good thing. I am sure that if I were made a similar offer, I would be sorely tempted by it.
Bournemouth’s proposal is currently before the Secretary of State, and it has been signed by the leaders of Bournemouth and five other Dorset councils. It envisages Christchurch taxpayers having to subsidise Bournemouth residents for up to 20 years by paying higher council tax than do Bournemouth and Poole residents. Effectively, they will have to meet the bill for the redundancy of Bournemouth’s chief executive. Extraordinarily, the council did not meet to discuss whether it wanted to make the chief executive redundant. Not even the council’s cabinet met to discuss the matter. No justification has been given for the substantial payoff, although I understand that there is to be a meeting of the council later next week, in which it will try to approve the decision retrospectively.
Fortunately, in our locality we have an excellent newspaper, the Daily Echo, which heard about the situation and told the world. It ran all sorts of headlines about the £390,000 payoff. As I indicated earlier, £390,000 is a slight underestimate, but the headlines get the message across. The paper discloses in, I think, today’s edition that the council is going to discuss the matter, following the revelations in the newspaper earlier this week.
We are still left with the question of why the situation arose, and local accountability is crucial if we are to get to the bottom of that. It seems as though the chief executive has fallen out of favour with the leader of Bournemouth Borough Council because the chief executive questioned the council leader’s conflicts of interest with his businesses. The council leader runs an organisation called Hospitality Solutions. This morning, I interrogated its website, which sets out all the things that the business does. In particular, it gives advice on town planning consultation for new build hotel and leisure development, planning support to maximise site potential, planning applications and reports, project planning and management, and building and refurbishment management. The website states that to arrange
“an initial discussion without any obligation”
on any of these issues, the person to contact is none other than John Beesley FIH, who is the leader of the council. On 23 January, the Bournemouth planning board gave approval for a £40 million hotel and apartment redevelopment on the site of the former Belvedere hotel to build a 131-room hotel with leisure facilities, a sky bar, 66 residential flats, a basement car park and so on. I understand that the developers of the site sought and obtained the advice of none other than the leader of the council when developing their ideas. The leader of the council—not wearing his hat as leader of the council, but wearing his hat as a planning consultant—gave them advice and encouraged them to make their pitch to the planning department, which knew of his involvement as a consultant, but was not, of course, influenced by the fact he was leader of the council.
What I suspect happened is that that, as well as various other things that have been going on, caused the chief executive to raise his eyebrow, that he was about to start an investigation into the leader of the council’s conduct and conflicts of interest, and that the leader of the council has in effect used public money to ensure that the chief executive’s best interests are served by taking the money and not inquiring any further into those issues.
That is a current example of what is happening across the country in local government. I do not know whether you read “Rotten Boroughs” in Private Eye, Mr Speaker, but there is so much information in it now that it almost needs to be a separate supplement. So much material is coming out but so little of it can get into the public domain, partly because of the pressure put on local newspapers. If they cause trouble with their local council, they may suffer discrimination because there will not be any advertising for local council jobs and they will not get access to information.
Amendment 3 does not go as far as amendment 2, but it would extend to politicians the limited extension that the Bill gives to journalists to. The example I gave earlier is obviously relevant, but another concerns the difficulties that councillors in one area have in obtaining information about what has happened or is happening in other parts of the country. There is a very lively local debate about fair funding for schools, but it is very difficult to drill down into the data in other council areas to find out how well or badly the schools in one’s own area compare with those elsewhere. There is a very good reason for saying that politicians should be able to have the same access as journalists.
Amendment 11 would extend the period in which inspections can be carried out beyond the current 30-day limit. The Minister told us on Second Reading:
“The ability to inspect and make copies of the most recent accounting information from a local authority during a specific period could provide compelling and timely evidence of poor spending decisions in the last accounting period”.—[Official Report, 25 November 2016; Vol. 617, c. 1212.]
Hooray. Why then is the period within which this can be done limited to 30 days? As I said in the context of the available statistics on the take-up of those powers, the period seems to have little impact. But if, as the Minister hopes, there is an exponential increase in take-up following my amendments and this proposed legislation, would it not be desirable to spread the load over a longer period than 30 days, so there is not a great surge of activity over a specific 30-day period? I cannot understand why it should not be possible to access accounts beyond the 30-day period, once they are audited, produced and available, and that is the purpose of amendment 11.
Every Member who represents an English constituency has been discussing the long-term transformation plans in the health service, but I have to say that some of the basic information seems to be incredibly hard to get. I asked my local clinical commissioning group whether there would be fewer or more acute hospital beds if its proposals were implemented, and if so, how many acute hospital beds are there at present and how many would there be in the future. The chief officer did not know those basic data. He came back to me later with the data, and—surprise, surprise—the number of acute beds is going to be reduced by more than 10% despite the fact that the current occupancy rates in December and January were of the order of 95%, as against a national best practice figure of 85%. And so it goes on. Too much is being done in the name of the public, but without the public’s being able to get down to the detail and find out who is benefiting and in whose interests some of these decisions are being taken.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough says, this is the most radical and far-reaching amendment. Because it will not have been cleared across Government, I am sure that it will be not be acceptable to my hon. Friend the Minister, but I hope that when he responds to this group of amendments he will make encouraging noises, saying that really the Government are sympathetic to the case for bringing more of these public health bodies within the ambit of local scrutiny.
I did not want to speak for a whole hour, and I have not spoken for a whole hour, as I know that many other Members wish to participate in this important debate. I am grateful for the interest hon. Members have shown in the issues I have raised, and hope that in due course the promoter of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, will be willing to adopt some of these amendments—although obviously not all of them, I accept.
The case of R. (on the application of HTV Ltd) v. Bristol City Council was heard in the administrative court on 14 May 2004. It highlights the importance of being specific in legislation. I also believe that it highlights how there could be problems with my hon. Friend’s Bill if it were to pass without my amendment. The claimant in the case was the television company, Harlech Television—HTV—which, as Members from Wales and the west of England will know as ITV Wales and West. HTV was in the process of making an edition of its weekly current affairs show, “Barely Serious”, and the episode in question was about a landlord who provided accommodation and care services in the Bristol area.
The producer of the television company approached the local authority, Bristol City Council, to inspect the relevant records relating to the matter. Specifically, the producer wanted access to accounts that might shed light on the relationship between the council and the landlord, as there had been a number of complaints about his conduct. Initially, a reporter from the programme attended the council offices and was given access to some materials, but they described the material as being incomplete and indecipherable. The producer then wrote to the manager of corporate communications at Bristol City Council, setting out a list of documents to which she wanted access. After taking advice, the council refused access to the documents that HTV was seeking, on the ground that the TV company was not a “person interested” under section 15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998. This is the very situation that my hon. Friend’s Bill seeks to clarify.
In the HTV case, the TV company applied for judicial review following Bristol City Council’s decision not to grant access to the requested documents. HTV argued that anyone with a legitimate and genuine interest came within the scope of section 15 of the 1998 act. HTV contested the council’s decision on two grounds, and it is the distinction between those two grounds identified in the case that has ultimately brought this Bill before us today. In particular, this is why I have tabled my amendment. First, HTV argued that as a local media organisation, it had a legitimate interest in the information in order to fulfil its role of ensuring the accountability of the authority to the public. Secondly, and as an alternative argument, HTV submitted that as a non-domestic ratepayer or business ratepayer, it had a financial interest in the accounts, sufficient to bring it within the scope of section 15.
Bristol City Council accepted that when non-domestic rates had been determined locally, the claimant would have been a “person interested” under the legislation. However, it argued that since the power to set non-domestic rates had been removed from local authorities, and since money raised by non-domestic rates was presently distributed from a central fund, the claimant was no longer a person concerned. The council also submitted that the information had to be sought for legitimate purposes concerning issues relating to the audit of the authority’s accounts.
Mr Justice Elias found in favour of the claimant, HTV, but the grounds of the decision are very revealing. In his judgment, he determined that HTV was a “person interested” under section 15 of the 1998 Act, but that that was solely on the ground of being a non-domestic ratepayer. The judge found the defendant’s argument that HTV did not contribute directly to the council budget through business rates to be purely artificial. He said:
“I think it is somewhat artificial to say that non-domestic ratepayers do not contribute to the local authority’s budget. Although their contributions are channelled through, and will be subject to, redistribution by central government—the income will be received indirectly by the authority as a grant from central government—nevertheless I think this gives them a sufficient interest in inspecting the accounts”.
The key point in the judgment was that being a media company was not sufficient to bring the claimant into the scope of the Audit Commission Act 1998, and it succeeded only in the alternative argument. Mr Justice Elias said:
“Some of the ways the claimant puts its case cannot succeed. I reject the contention that it has a sufficient interest merely by virtue of being a media organisation. It seems to me that the use to which persons wish to put the information cannot of itself make them interested persons.”
He also concluded that if a right to inspect documents existed at all, the motives for seeking to use that right, and for seeking access to the documents, was not relevant. Referring to that case and some of the detail of it explains and sets out clearly why it is so important that measures in this Bill are clarified.
Let us continue with the example of a television company wanting access to local authority documents for the purposes of a documentary. The HTV case demonstrates that another company or journalist who operates or lives outside the area would have no access simply by virtue of being a journalist and that neither would have access as a domestic ratepayer as they would ultimately contribute to a different local authority. Thirteen years after the HTV judgment, we can see why a simple legislative change is now so important. As I said, I do not seek to wreck the Bill, but it is important to set out why my amendment should be made today.
My amendment 1 clarifies the definition of a journalist, which is currently set out in clause 1(3) and its new subsection (1A), which states:
“In subsection (1) ‘journalist’ means any person who produces for publication journalistic material (whether paid to do so or otherwise).”
The problem is that it is unclear exactly what constitutes a journalist. As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, clause 1’s title is:
“Inspection of accounting records by journalists and citizen journalists”.
Although new subsection (1A) attempts to define “journalist”, there is no reference in the Bill whatsoever to “citizen journalist”. It was for that reason that I sought to table amendment 1, which seeks to insert at the end of clause 1, page 1, line 8 a proposed new subsection (1B) containing the following words:
“In subsection (1A) publication of journalistic material means the proposed inclusion in a newspaper or magazine whether paid for or distributed without payment and includes any article proposed to be published on any website on the internet whether it can be accessed without payment or upon payment of a subscription.”
Members will have seen the explanatory statement that I provided to give a flavour of why I tabled the amendment. It states:
“The purpose of this amendment is to make clear that the section covers all journalists who may wish to publish their articles in a newspaper or magazine or on the internet, irrespective of whether there are any charges for either.”
I suspect that there is not much controversy over the definition of a journalist. Although, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, the exact definition of a journalist can be open to some dispute, and I will come on to that when I deal with his amendments. As far as my amendment is concerned, the real difficulty is with the definition of what amounts to a “citizen journalist”. Rather than try to make the wording even more clumsy and complicated by trying to define the term “citizen journalist”, I have simply expanded on the word “journalist” to make it clear that if somebody wants to publish their work on the internet, that should be covered by the Bill.
A website is defined as
“a set of pages of information on the internet about a particular subject”.
I challenge people to ask themselves: if a member of the public was reading my amendment, would it be clear what was intended? I submit that it is perfectly clear that the intention is to expand the definition of “journalist” and to go some way towards what the Bill’s sponsors claim they are doing with their provision. There is no ambiguity here.
My hon. Friend’s most controversial amendment is amendment 10, which would deal with the inclusion of health service bodies by removing the words
“other than an audit of accounts of a health service body”
from clause 1. It is worth noting that the House of Commons briefing on the Bill refers to the fact that the bodies covered by the 2014 Act include clinical commissioning groups within the NHS. Of course, they are only one small part of the NHS. Like him, I see no reason why the Bill should not be amended to make it clear that the plethora of different health service bodies are covered.
I do not intend to speak for too long. The Bill makes a relatively small change to existing legislation, but that change will increase transparency, improve openness and, I hope, increase public engagement in decision making. There are 14 amendments before us, in the names of the hon. Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), and I will talk briefly about them.
Amendment 2 would extend the provision on public access to local audit documents to include people who are registered to vote in local elections in the UK. We support measures to extend transparency and openness, and the amendment would undoubtedly help to achieve that. Amendments 3 and 4 would adjust the Bill to include politicians and business rate payers in the list of people who can scrutinise local audit documents. As with amendment 2, which would largely cover those people, we support measures to extend transparency and openness.
Amendments 5, 6 and 7 would adjust the reference to “journalist” to require a journalist to be accredited, professional or qualified, and amendment 8 would remove the definition of journalist. I believe that the hon. Member for Christchurch tabled the amendments to ensure that the definition of a journalist was debated today, but I am hesitant about them. The Bill is designed to extend the ability to view the documents that we are discussing, and I am sure we all want to ensure that no journalist is unable to scrutinise them.
Amendment 1 would provide greater clarity by ensuring that clause 1 covers all journalists, from the humble local blogger to those in our very own Press Gallery in Parliament, regardless of whether payment or a subscription is needed to access the relevant publications. If the House wishes to make the provisions applicable only to journalists, we would have no objection to the amendment becoming part of the Bill.
Amendment 9 would ensure that anybody who was eligible to view the documents could do so at all reasonable times and without payment. As long as the Minister can assure us that the amendment would not impose a burden on local authorities, we would welcome it. Amendments 10 and 11 would extend the provisions to health service bodies and extend the period in which inspections can be carried beyond 30 days; we support that proposal. Amendment 13 would allow previous contracts to be inspected, and that is welcome. The scrutiny of past contracts will no doubt ensure that future contracts are drawn up in such a way as to secure the best possible service and value for money.
Amendment 12 would remove the restriction on inspecting parts of the accounts on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, but it would maintain the restriction on copying. Amendment 14 would remove the definition in the 2014 Act of when information is protected on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. I am hesitant to remove those protections without further detail and consultation with local authorities. I look forward to hearing the responses from the Minister and other hon. Members to the amendments.
I was surprised by the number of amendments—there were 13 or 14—and having brought a private Member’s Bill to the House last year, I wondered whether this was some kind of record. I was assured by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that that was not the case. I accept, as a new Member, that I probably still have a lot to learn. None the less, I am grateful to my hon. Friends for their amendments and for their contributions this morning. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North put it, they were succinct contributions.
I listened to my hon. Friends’ contributions and considered their amendments carefully. I am not convinced, however, that the changes would be helpful to what I believe is, at heart, a very simple Bill. The Bill has one purpose alone: to extend the definition of “interested person” to journalists, including citizen journalists. They will have access to a wider range of local audit documents to assist with their investigations, enabling them to publicise their findings, so that local electors are made more aware and are better able to hold their councils to account for their actions through questioning the auditor or making an objection. Much has been said about openness and transparency, and the Bill will make a valuable contribution in that regard.
Let me respond first to amendment 2 and add my thoughts to those aired by the Minister. Amendment 2, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, seeks to extend inspection rights under section 26 to all UK-registered local electors. This would essentially give the public at large the right to inspect the accounting documents of any local authority in England. The local audit framework already introduces mandatory transparency codes for the very smallest and the largest public bodies. It requires the electronic publication of key financial and other data, so they are available for all to view free of charge. Ministers clearly flagged their intention to extend the right to the specific inspection of accounting information to journalists to assist them in their investigations, but to extend those rights to everyone would vastly expand the potential for mischief making without any wider public benefit.
In addition, to permit anyone to inspect this wider range of accounting information could, I fear, result in a greater cost burden on local authorities, as they might well, to prevent numerous requests to inspect, decide to scan and upload a large amount of additional information every year, with the unintended consequence of making it harder for the man in the street to find basic useful data. I have been very mindful of the burden on local authorities. We must ensure we strike the right balance.
Amendments 3 and 4 also seek to amend who has the right to inspect the accounting documents under section 26, although to a lesser degree. Again, I do not consider these amendments to be desirable. For example, “politician” is a loosely defined term and could open inspection rights to people outside the UK. I have visions of the President of the United States asking to see the accounts of my local authority in Walsall, or even in the local authority in Christchurch. Unlike journalists, whose role is to disseminate information publicly, this would not necessarily be part of a politician’s remit unless it was in their interest. Removing the definition of “journalist” from the Bill would undermine its whole purpose in relation to citizen journalists. Specifically in relation to amendment 4, the courts have already clarified that a non-domestic rate payer would be considered as an interested person. This amendment is therefore unnecessary.
Broadly speaking, amendments 5 to 8, also tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, seek to refine the definition of “journalist” and remove the rights of citizen journalists and bloggers from the Bill. Although I realise that my hon. Friend is trying to defend the ideal of the fourth estate—the press, as defined by the Scottish philosopher Edmund Burke in the 18th century—I think he needs to recognise that there is now a fifth estate, consisting of networked individuals with the ability to share information, create communities and organise social movements online. It is not possible to turn back the clock. We must accept that many people today obtain their information from non-traditional sources, which is precisely why the Bill includes the concept of a citizen journalist.
The term “citizen journalist” includes bloggers and others who scrutinise local authorities but may not be accredited members of the press—we have discussed that this morning—but that does not mean that it would cover anyone with social media access. The reference in the Bill to “journalistic material” focuses on what a person does, and suggests that such a person would be able to provide details of other blogs or tweets that he or she had authored, and forums in which they had been published, in order to inspect the accounting documents requested. Use of the term “publication” implies a public element. While it might include journalistic material tweeted on Twitter, it would not include material circulated to a small, “invite only” Facebook group.
Amendments 12, 13 and 14 were also tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. I consider that they go beyond what my Bill is trying to achieve, in that they would tamper with the ability of local authorities to restrict access to commercially sensitive information. It is important that some information, the disclosure of which would prejudice commercial confidentiality, should remain exempt from rights of inspection. Similar provisions exist in the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and I do not believe that my Bill is the right place to challenge those provisions, which could easily be the subject of a separate debate.
Section 26(5) of the 2014 Act sensibly includes the provision that inspection would be permitted if there were an overriding public interest in favour of the disclosure of information that might otherwise prejudice commercial confidentiality. It appears, to me at least, that the legislation strikes a reasonable balance between allowing for the inspection of commercially confidential information that it is in the public interest to disclose and protecting information that it would not be in the public interest to disclose.
This is a straightforward Bill that does exactly what it says on the tin—and on the face of the Bill. I am grateful to my hon. Friends for their contributions, which have given us more to think through, but none of the amendments would add to the Bill’s simplicity. None the less, I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for Bury North for their amendments.
24 March 2017
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details