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Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Access To Information) (England) Regulations 2000

Volume 621: debated on Thursday 8 February 2001

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My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. It is a long Motion but with a short point of principle at its heart.

The regulations in question—whose title runs for two lines—are required by the Local Government Act 2000 but they are also—I hope that I may say this without offence—more importantly required by their principle of maximum openness in government at every level. On this occasion we are talking about local government.

During the passage of the Local Government Bill, as it then was, we on these Benches made it quite clear that our support for the Bill depended, in part, on acceptable access to information provisions. We tabled amendments that required meetings to be open to the public and the press, who are a very important part of the democratic process, providing information about what goes on locally. The amendments required those meetings to be open when councils were discussing matters pertaining to decisions. We did not press our amendments because the Government produced their own inevitably more carefully crafted amendments which we were happy to support. They are now reflected in Section 22 of the Act.

On 24th July 2000 (at col. 59 of the Official Report) the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, explained to the House that the amendments provided the foundations of the robust regime for public and media access to ensure that people will know what decisions the executive of the local authority is planning to take, how they can make their in-put to those decisions, what decisions have been taken and the reasons for those decisions. That statement was helpful and very important. It spelt out what accountability is: it is not simply being able to point to the person or the group who makes the decision; it is the whole process of decision making—access by those who have an interest and a contribution to the final decision.

The Act allows—in parliamentary terms that means "requires"—the Secretary of State to make regulations. A draft was published last summer. We now have regulations that are in force together with statutory guidance regarding their application. After the publication of the regulations, it was drawn to our attention that they do not wholly achieve the access which we sought and which I believe the Government intended when the matter was debated last summer.

We know that there are problems with orders. We are all aware of the convention that we do not vote on—that is, vote against—orders, or at any rate only in the rarest of circumstances. I should point out that "convention" is a term which has a different definition depending on the occasion. We know also—it is particularly important in this context—that orders are unamendable. There is no opportunity to influence their content during the formal legislative process. My own view is that I would much prefer to be able to amend orders, but that is not the issue for the House today. We need to consider what can be achieved in the context of an unamendable order accompanied by guidance issued by the Government—guidance that can be reissued.

Aware of these difficulties in procedure, we decided that the mature way to proceed was to approach the Government to discuss our concerns. We did not simply produce those concerns like a rabbit out of a hat and bring them before the House. Discussions have taken place with Ministers in both Houses. It is perfectly right that, in the context of a discussion about access to information, I should make that point clear. I do not know whether the Conservatives have made a similar approach. No doubt we shall hear from the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, on that matter.

We approached the Government in order to see what could be done to meet our concerns. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us and, more importantly, the House on the points that I raise. I shall do so as briefly as I can, recognising that, to those who have not lived with this issue, the points may appear a little opaque. I apologise for that.

First, under the provisions, the "key" decisions must be made in public. Under Regulation 8(1)(a), the first type of key decision is one likely to result in a local authority incurring expenditure or making savings which are,
"significant, having regard to the local authority's budget, for the service or function in question".
The term "significant" is not an easy one. Different authorities will inevitably take a different approach to the matter. The Government have referred to the term in their guidance but we are concerned to ensure that there are financial thresholds above which decisions are key; or, to put it another way, below which they can be decided in private. That is what we are seeking to minimise. We need to be satisfied that the levels cannot be set ridiculously high by an individual local authority.

I accept that this is a sensitive matter for authorities. If the Government are able to tell us that they can move forward on this point. I hope that they will also tell us that that will be through consultation with local authorities.

Secondly, a key decision under the regulations is one that is significant for communities in two or more electoral wards. The guidance, which puts a gloss on this, provides that large rural wards can be regarded by a local authority as two wards. I do not think that the two-ward test meets the test of common sense. Frequently, decisions are taken which have a huge effect—but an effect on a limited number of people. I shall not weary the House with examples. I am sure that noble Lords will be able to think of them from their own experience.

My third point concerns draft reports. Local authorities should not be able to get away with using the label of "draft report" on what is substantively a final report. Such a report should be treated as final and should be dealt with in public. Nor should an authority be able to use the urgency procedures, with which I am sure the House will be familiar, to avoid the requirement to make reports available three days in advance when the only urgency is a failure to finalise the report in time for the normal procedures.

My fourth point concerns briefing meetings with officers. Under Regulation 7(2), a meeting is not a meeting to which the access provisions attach if it is for an officer to brief the decision-makers. I ask the Minister to give the House an assurance that it will be made clear that this cannot be used as a get-out. Regulation 7(2) applies to Regulation 7(1)(b) and (c). I am sure the Minister follows what I am saying. I apologise again to other noble Lords. I ask him for a further assurance that any key decision of an executive or of a committee of an executive must be taken in public, subject to the usual provisions about exempt confidential and commercial matters.

My next point concerns matters where there is a change of policy. Under the new executive scrutiny split, policy is a matter for the full council. But policy does not spring fully formed onto an agenda. There is a process of policy-making. The involvement of the public in that policy-making—both access to it and, because of access to it, ability to contribute to it—is most important. I should like to be assured that a decision by an executive in the course of developing policy proposals will be treated as a key decision.

Finally, I return again to the helpful statements made by the Minister on 24th July 2000. He said that the Government would ensure that their intention,
"for open meetings cannot be subverted by an executive separating a pertinent discussion about a key decision from the meeting where it collectively agrees that decision or through its scheme for delegating formal decision-taking to an individual member of the executive or an officer of the authority. The principle is clear. Where executives meet formally to discuss key decisions, they should do so in public regardless of who will formally take the decision".—[Official Report, 24/7/00; cols. 59–60.]
That is an important point. Decisions should not be delegated through a formal procedure in order to avoid their being discussed and debated in a public and accessible fashion. The guidance needs to be clear on that point.

I turn to the guidance. We have the two documents at the moment—the regulations and the guidance. We already have a provision in the guidance that alters the provisions of the regulations. That relates to the number of wards affected. I hope that the Minister can explain to the House that we are not in the uncomfortable constitutional position of what appears to be a subordinate document over-ruling the primary document—the regulations. I believe that, given the status of statutory guidance, local authorities need to have regard to it. Can the Minister assure noble Lords that no conflict exists between the two? I refer not only to the question of wards, but also as regards the matters I have raised this evening, if they should be included in guidance rather than put on the face of an order.

Finally, we are entering new waters in local government. I believe that, assuming that we finish this evening's proceedings with the regulations in place, it would be reasonable to review them after a short period of implementation and experience. Can the Minister say whether the Government would be prepared to review the regulations; namely, to consult fully and openly and then to revise in short order on the basis of that consultation? If that is so, when? I beg to move.

Moved, That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to revoke the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Access to Informational (England) Regulations 2000 (S.I. 2000/3272), laid before the House on 19th December 2000, and to lay before it in their place regulations which would—

(a) improve the definition of "key decisions" such that one of the tests is whether a decision is significant in terms of its effects on people in one ward or a wider area rather than in two wards as defined at present;

(b) specify the minimum financial thresholds for expenditure or savings decisions by an executive above which a decision is a key decision in such a manner as to minimise arbitrary variations between authorities;

(c) require that a decision which makes a significant change to the existing policy or established practice of an authority, even within the framework of matters delegated by that authority to the executive, is a key decision;

(d) remove the conflict between Regulations 2 and 9 so that it is explicitly required that all reports relating to key decisions shall be deemed to be in a final form, and not in draft, at least three clear days before the decision is taken in order that executives shall not be able to avoid advance disclosure of such reports; and

(e) prevent avoidance of the requirement for cabinets to meet in public by barring officers from briefing a full cabinet of a local authority executive in secret unless the subject matter of the briefing is confidential or exempt within the terms of Part VA or Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972.—(Baroness Hamwee.)

My Lords, on 23rd January, a debate was held in another place on an humble Address calling on Her Majesty to annul the draft Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Access to Information) Order. It was a long and interesting debate. It would certainly be worth anyone's while to take the time to read it. At the end of the debate, 31 Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament—the strength of the party in that House is 46—voted for the prayer to annul the draft order. The Municipal Journal subsequently reported the Liberal Democrat spokesman on local government, Mr Don Foster, to have said that Liberal Democrat Peers were ready to join forces with Tory Peers to veto the regulations.

What happened subsequently is interesting, instructive and—I shall dare to confess this to the House—a lesson to myself. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, beat me to the Clerk's office. She tabled a Motion for a Prayer to annul the order. That stood on the Order Paper for a number of days. In the middle of last week, I indicated to her that we intended to support her Motion. At that time, the noble Baroness gave no indication that there was any intention to approach the Government for further discussions, nor was there any subsequent indication that that had happened. As a result, I was somewhat surprised when, on Monday, that Motion was withdrawn and on Tuesday the Motion that the noble Baroness has moved this evening was tabled on the Order Paper. In the circumstances, I should have thought that I would have been entitled to be told that something was going on. However, that being the case, it seemed to me that it was entirely proper to reinstate the original Motion put down by the noble Baroness, but now, of course, tabled in my name. At the appropriate time, I shall ask the House to reject the Motion tabled in the name of the noble Baroness and to support what is now my Motion.

I have received briefing material on this matter from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which considers that the regulations as drafted are in need of significant improvement. I also received briefing material from the Newspaper Society, which identified three notable areas of weakness. The Society of Editors shares those concerns and spoke of the possibility of dubious interpretation of the precise wording of the regulations. I am bound to say that the speech of the noble Baroness supported those concerns. Furthermore, they mirror completely my own concerns about the regulations.

It was interesting to note an article in the Local Government Chronicle of 22nd January, under the joint authorship of George Jones, Professor of Government at the London School of Economics, and John Stewart, Professor of Local Government at Inlogov, a part of the University of Birmingham. These gentlemen are two of the foremost authorities on such matters. The article commences by saying that:
"The Local Government Act 2000 is a piece of bad legislation. It is a classic example of central prescription based on no real evidence".
It then concludes by saying:
"How much better it would have been for the Government to have allowed innovation and not assumed it knew the form the innovation should take. The experience so far suggests the centre does not know best".
That sentiment is echoed by councils and councillors up and down the country.

On the subject of our present debate, the authors state that:
"Generally the consequence could be to drive decision making away from the public arena of the cabinet to the privacy of the individual decision maker, sometimes after private discussions by the cabinet".
I shall not embarrass the Government by continuing to quote from that article. However, once again, it is worth everyone's time to read it.

Having made much of the need to break down obsessive and unnecessary secrecy in government, which includes local government, the Government are hoist by their own petard. As the Motion tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, makes clear, the draft regulations before us are almost as full of holes as Gruyere cheese. Our problem lies in how best to tackle this difficulty. However appropriate may be the Motion brought forward by the noble Baroness—I do not quarrel with its detail—if it were passed, all that it would represent is an opinion of this House. The draft regulations, with all their flaws, would in any event come into force. The Government need not do anything else. Political reality, given the imminence of a possible general election, suggests to me that this is what will happen. That is the reason why I ask the House to reject the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness.

On the other hand, if the House supports my Motion for an humble Address praying against the draft order, and it succeeds, then we shall have the certainty that the Government will be obliged to bring forward revised orders and thus we shall have created an opportunity for improvement.

The Minister may well try to argue that there is no time to allow this to be done. I do not accept that argument. It would not take very long for suitable revisions to be made. If such revisions were published and a revised order then laid before the House, local government would do what it has always done—and, indeed, what it is doing at present. It would try to work within the draft regulations, on the blithe assumption that they would be approved, which would almost certainly he the case. Indeed, that is happening already. If one visits local authorities up and down the land, they have the draft regulations and are looking at how they need to alter their procedures in order to comply. Even if the new draft regulations had not been approved, local authorities across the country would do their best—as they always have done—to work within the intentions of Parliament.

I accept that the Minister could withdraw his draft order, although I believe that he would have some difficulty with that as regards Members of his own party in another place. However, if he were to do so, then I would not need to press my Motion for an humble Address. In the event that he does not, I shall find it necessary to press my Motion to a vote.

My Lords, I had the privilege of chairing the pre-legislative Joint Committee which examined the draft local government Bill from which the Local Government Bill sprang, which in turn gave birth to these regulations. In that report—from which there were no dissenters—we stated in an early paragraph that we considered that the objectives of the Bill, to promote efficiency, transparency and accountability, were laudable. As a committee, we saw merit in the inclusion of a clause in the Bill to state this purpose.

In its response, the Government declined to include such a clause, stating that they had set out the objectives very clearly in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill. Sadly—and I genuinely mean sadly—I feel that that has not come through in the regulations before your Lordships' House today.

I am not one of those who is implacably opposed to the notion of cabinet government in local government. Nor do I oppose the ability of a cabinet to meet in private and receive advice within the formal structure of the local authority, provided that decisions are made openly and the basis of those decisions is made clear. In this regard, we seem to be making the question of whether or not decisions should be made in public extraordinarily complicated, rather than relying on the simple exemptions set out in regulation 21, which have formed the basis of similar judgments for local government in the past.

For me, the issues which cause problems with the regulations relate to the definition and description of documents that can be available for inspection. If a decision is made on the basis of advice contained in a document, and that document can be excluded from public scrutiny by virtue of being labelled a draft, there is a clear opportunity for the inventive to circumvent the system.

Indeed, you did not need to be inventive under the old provisions of local government. When I was in local government, I have done precisely that. The difference was, of course, that the decision was not made at that time by the body considering the draft report; the decision had to be made in public on the basis of final reports. There is a clear difference between a draft which is under consideration and upon which no decisions have yet been based and a draft which has been acted upon. In the latter case, there ought to be no exemptions at all. Whether authorities should take decisions on the strength of draft reports is another question.

I also read the regulations to say that they exempt from publication advice from political advisers. That is understandable. But if the executive decision, or the individual executive decision, is not supported by any other advice, should it not then become public? The recording provisions require details of rejected alternatives to be set out. So there clearly could be a situation where officers' advice is rejected, their report is published, but, if the decision had been taken on the strength of political advice, there would be no published report to support that decision. Were there regulations to ensure that this was not the case, I doubt if any decisions would then be taken on party political advice alone.

On these matters alone, I would ask the Minister to think again and to redefine these regulations. With great regret, I have to say that I do not believe that the regulations as drafted will achieve the transparency we all sought to achieve in a new, invigorated system of local government.

My Lords, I wish to add my strong support to the case so ably made by my noble friend Lady Hamwee. I sincerely hope that the Government will be able to respond because, at the moment, they are party to new arrangements which will mean that more issues will be discussed and decided in secret in councils up and down the country.

My main purpose in speaking is to emphasise the importance of openness and access to the democratic process. At a time when we can see clear evidence that the public's trust in politicians is at a very low level, it must behove us all to do nothing to add to that mistrust. It is clear that the Government understand the concerns expressed by Members of another place, by Members of this House and by people in the wider world. We know that the Minister gave promises during the passage of the legislation last year, and we find it regrettable that the regulations are not as strong as those promises.

As matters stand, I believe that we have now a combination of local discretion and loose definition which will mean that the public are unlikely to become aware of many decisions affecting them until those decisions have been made. We are all rightly concerned about the low turn-out in elections and the lack of interest in local government. Recent government announcements have emphasised—and we agree—that there must be a bottom-up approach.

My practical experience over a dozen years in local government in Southampton showed me how important it is to be open and accessible. Councillors who were not on committees were allowed to make their case, as were the public. They put their case and they helped with small and large decisions. Indeed, on occasions, it gave them a thirst for battle at the polls. I think many of them thought they might do a better job. I and others encouraged people to take part in the democratic process. In my ward, the turn-out was often higher than in other areas.

In short, openness and access assists people to participate in the local democratic process. That is at the heart of what we are discussing today. I fought with others in the 1980s for open government. I never thought that at the beginning of the next century I would be fighting that battle again. I hope that the Government will see the error of their ways, answer some of the questions raised today and do something to improve on their promises of last year.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Lord Whitty)

My Lords, I am grateful for the interest shown in the debate. I recognise that there has been concern around the country and that noble Lords in the Chamber for the debate reflect some of that concern. I am prepared to respond to those concerns. I am particularly gratified to see the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in his place tonight. I think that the whole House will share that sentiment.

The Government absolutely agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said about transparency and accountability, and with what the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said about the need to ensure that the public have faith in these processes. However, we are facing an argument from the Opposition Benches and, perhaps, to a certain extent, from the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. It is argued that these regulations will lead to greater secrecy and less accountability, whereas the opposite is the case. It was also argued that the annulment of these regulations, as proposed quite explicitly by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, would lead to a better situation, whereas I would argue the exact opposite.

Let me make three initial points. First, if these regulations are annulled, the position will be simply that there will be no requirement whatever on councils to be open. It is not the case that without these regulations councils will be unable or prevented from adopting executive arrangements—of course they would not be. Parliament has given them the powers and the duties to do so. Nothing we do today will change that. Removing these regulations in the way suggested by the Prayer of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, would simply have the effect that, when councils adopt executive arrangements, it would be left entirely to them and their executives to decide what is open and what is to be done in secret, thereby maximising the possibility of abuse and secrecy.

My Lords, I am absolutely fascinated. The Minister appears to be implying that if the Prayer against these regulations succeeds, the Government will then do nothing. I find that remarkable in the light of the unanimous view around this House, as I understand it, that we want the maximum openness and proper regulation. What we do not want is inadequate regulation.

My Lords, I am simply pointing out that the effect of the noble Lord's amendment would be a reversion, a regression, to the status quo; and the status quo is not appropriate for the new structure of councils. In other words, what the noble Lord seeks is impossible within the provisions of the Act. In so far as we were to go down that road, it would lead to fewer requirements on councils to pursue their decisions openly and to greater abuse. What the Government did in such circumstances would obviously be a matter for us; we should have to consider the situation. But the straightforward effect of what the noble Lord intends to do tonight will lead to more secrecy and more abuse.

We recognise that there is anxiety around the country, some of which is reflected in the House tonight. The reason is that some councils—councils of all political persuasions; I am not trying to make a party-political point—during the transition to the new arrangements, in trying to find new ways of working within the existing laws, have frankly become more rather than less secretive. We deplore that. The Government have consistently condemned such behaviour, whatever political party is in power in the town halls and county halls. But it has happened—and it has happened under the existing law, the very status quo to which the noble Lord wishes to return.

Thirdly, throughout the preparation of the regulations and the guidance on which we are now working, we have been careful to consult people widely and to listen to people's concerns and ideas. We do not pretend that what we have got is perfect. We have been grateful for other people's advice. We have been grateful that we have been able to discuss with our Liberal Democrat colleagues. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, suggests, we believe in discussing these matters with political colleagues. In this context I am prepared to regard the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, as a colleague; however, he and his noble friends did not seek to discuss ways through this, whereas the noble Baroness did. As a result, I believe that we have reached some understanding as to how the guidance should be drafted, which is a sensible mode of carrying on consensual democracy. If the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, wishes to stay outside that consensual democracy, that is a matter for him and for his party. It is all very well for his colleagues in another place to take votes on these matters because the consequences of what they do do not matter. The consequences of what is done here, were the noble Lord to win this vote, do matter. It is important, therefore, that posturing should not be undertaken. We believe that as a result of discussions with the Liberal Democrats and with others we have reached a more sensible outcome.

Part of that is to indicate that if we have not got the matter right, we have a mechanism for looking at it again. We shall review and consult on the operation of the regulations and, as appropriate, amend them 12 months after the councils have begun to operate executive arrangements. To respond to the question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in practice, that means about June 2002.

The regulations provide the regime of openness and they provide for the executive arrangements. I remind the House that there are certain areas around the country in which anxieties have been expressed and which are not covered by these arrangements—the quasi-judicial functions of the council, in deciding planning applications, for example, are not matters for the executive and are therefore covered by the existing arrangements. There is no change in that situation.

What will happen under these arrangements is that, for the first time, decisions will be notified well in advance. For the first time, papers relating to key decisions will be available as soon as they are finalised and, in line with the current regime, they will have to be available at least three clear days in advance. For the first time, key decisions to be taken by officers will be subject to the same access to information requirements as decisions to be made by members under current arrangements. For the first time, the legislation includes an explicit requirement that substantive discussion of key decisions to be taken collectively is held in public as well as at the formal decision-making meeting—in the past, in councils of all persuasions, this may occasionally have been a rubber-stamping operation. That is an extension of openness. It provides access to information; it is not a restriction.

The noble Lord made much of the fact that on occasions an executive can meet in private. He seeks to contrast that with the position under the existing Part VA. But that is not a direct comparison. Such meetings can take place and, by the noble Lord's own admission when he referred to the current practice of secret councils, they do take place. Under Part VA it is entirely possible for there to be private meetings. But what we are trying to ensure is that key decisions are subject to public meetings. The decisions that are not key decisions under the new arrangements and the new guidance are decisions which officers routinely make, currently without any public papers and without any record of those decisions.

The noble Baroness raised a number of points. We share her aim, and I understand some of her concerns. She raised, for example, the question of financial thresholds. I want to make it clear that we shall, as soon as reasonably practicable, be consulting on our definition of appropriate thresholds. We intend now to revise our guidance and make clear our intention to consult on thresholds and, in the light of that, to include the guidance indicating the thresholds for service or function budgets above which any likely expenditure of savings would make a decision key.

The noble Baroness made a point about one ward making a significant decision rather than two wards; and she mentioned the issue of draft papers, briefing meetings with officers and decisions which alter policy or established council practice. We understand and sympathise with those concerns. We believe that the regulations and the guidance will deliver what the noble Baroness is seeking. Nevertheless, following the discussions that we have had and taking into account the points she makes, we shall be revising the guidance to make it more robust on these issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, raised the issue of draft reports and claimed that the regulations make it possible for reports never to see the light of day simply by keeping the reports in draft form. That is not possible under these regulations. Regulations 9(1) and 11(3) require papers to be made available at least three clear days before a decision is taken. That cannot be got round by claiming that a decision was made on the basis of a draft report.

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but will he expand a little on that answer? Part I of the regulations states that,

"'document' means any report or background papers, other than that only in draft form, taken into consideration in relation to an executive decision".
As I read the regulations, in no way is that qualification removed if the draft documents are used in connection with the making of an executive decision or an individual executive decision.

My Lords, even under existing procedures a decision cannot be made on a report that is not a permanent report. The guidance will make that clear. Therefore, one cannot get round the regulations by taking a decision on a draft report and not issuing the draft report in accordance with the "three days" guideline.

The noble Baroness asked me to indicate clearly the status of the guidance to which I have referred and which will elaborate on the regulations. It is guidance to which, in law, councils must have regard. The regulations in a sense set the minimum standards; the guidance builds on that and provides for the approach. The guidance and the regulations cannot contradict each other—which was the other point raised by the noble Baroness. Councils could depart from the guidance only if they could show well reasoned grounds for so doing. That clarifies the relationship. There can be no conflict. Councils must follow the guidance unless they have reasonable grounds for departing from it.

The noble Baroness referred to our debates in July and to what I said about formally delegating powers to an individual member or to an officer for decision. I stand by what I said in July. These regulations will not allow councils to get around a situation by delegating the powers to an individual. The process of delegation cannot get around the requirements for openness where the substantive decision is taken.

I submit that the regulations, taken together with the proposed guidance under the regulations which I have given an indication of tonight, far from creating a new culture of secrecy will restrict greatly some of the circumstances in which secrecy has in the past been achieved and will lay the foundation of a new regime of efficiency, transparency and accountability. I commend the regulations as they stand to the House and ask the House to resist attempts to annul them.

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, does he accept that he is in breach of his own pleading for openness? At no time has there been any indication to me or to anyone else on my side of the House that there would ever be any attempt to arrive at a consensus approach to this issue. One might reasonably have thought that if that was the intention it would have happened, but it has not. I regret that. The Minister has said that he will bring forward revisions and guidance. He has not put a time-scale on that action. I cannot say at this stage that I am satisfied with the situation.

My Lords, I note the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, who speaks as an ex-leader of a local authority. He knows the right and wrong ways of going about these matters and what is what. His contribution was helpful.

I apologise that I have not been able to talk to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, over the course of the past few days—I hope that my Motion is a clear enough indication of how our minds are working—I have been much involved elsewhere, but I certainly did not intend any personal insult to him. He said that my speech supported his arguments. I am delighted to hear that. When I first raised this issue during the course of the Bill by way of an amendment the speakers were my noble friends Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer and Lord Tope. The Minister replied. There was no speaker from the Conservative Benches. With, I think, six exceptions—I may be wrong—on the Vote at the end of the group the Conservatives stayed in their places and did not vote. I also note that what we have heard from the noble Lord is opposition but no positive proposal.

I thank the Minister for the assurances that he has given tonight. They are real assurances, not just expressions of understanding. We on these Benches want to achieve improvements now. I believe that on the basis of the assurances we shall do so. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.