I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Before I come on to the detail of my Bill, I would like to say what a pleasure it has been to spend time in the Chamber this morning, and particularly to follow my hon. Friend David Tredinnick and what he aptly calls his Santa Claus Bill. I remember introducing my first private Member’s Bill last year, which we fondly referred to as the Peter Pan and Wendy Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing her second private Member’s Bill in her first term in Parliament. If she is successful, as we hope, she will have equalled my record in the last Parliament. I wish her every success.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. If I am successful with this Bill, I will perhaps have to try to beat her record and go for a hat trick. There is a challenge for her.
Although the title of my Bill is the Local Audit (Public Access to Documents) Bill, it is not really about audit at all. I was going to say that the title may be a little misleading, but I am not sure whether I am allowed to use that term, so let me say that the title does not really encapsulate what the Bill is all about. Let me explain that a little further.
The aim of the Bill is further to improve the transparency and accountability of local public bodies. Because it would amend the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 in respect of the people who are able to inspect accounting documentation, the title has to reflect that parentage. I hope Members will indulge me in explaining that point today. This is a very short piece of legislation, but I believe it is one that we should welcome, because it would make a single and very simple change to the 2014 Act.
The Bill is designed explicitly to amend legislation so that journalists, including citizen journalists, can have the right for one month to inspect the accounting records of the financial year just ended of any relevant authority and to request copies of those documents—without being required to have an interest in that authority.
When I sat on the Investigatory Powers Public Bill Committee a few months ago, we spent quite a bit of time talking about journalists and how we should define journalists for the purpose of the legislation. Could anybody with an iPhone, for example, legitimately call themselves a journalist? Will my hon. Friend explain in greater depth to assuage my concern that her Bill might put an undue cost pressure on local authorities if officers had to find time to meet any requests, particularly when anybody could classify themselves as both a citizen and a journalist?
That is an interesting point. I shall deal later in my speech with the definitions of “journalist” and “citizen journalist”.
My Bill seeks to increase transparency and openness, but—I must stress this—not to place an unnecessary burden on local authorities that work very hard and often have to handle a great many requests for information.
I know that the Bill is about openness and transparency, but—and this is in the same vein as the intervention from my hon. Friend Simon Hoare—has my hon. Friend conducted an analysis of the extra cost and burden on local authorities that are already burdened with huge numbers of freedom of information requests, as she has just said, and the requirement to publish numerous responses?
That is another interesting point. We need to get the balance right. We want openness and transparency, but we do not want to place an unnecessary burden on local authorities. On the basis of indications that I have received, I do not believe that the Bill would impose a huge burden on them. As for the cost, they will still be able to charge for requests for information, and I shall say more about that later.
A complete list of the local bodies that would be affected is set out in schedule 2 of the 2014 Act and includes local authorities, police bodies, fire and rescue authorities, parks authorities, combined authorities, and parish councils with an annual turnover of £25,000 and above. It is worth recognising that the Bill provides for that threshold.
Section 26 of the Act enables “any persons interested” to “inspect the accounting records” of such bodies, and to request copies of any part of those records or related documents. However, under previous case law it has been determined that the definition does not include journalists, although it would include, for example, local business rate payers or others who pay fees or charges to the body in question. Section 25 gives local electors the right to inspect and have copies of a wider range of accounts-related information from their council, such as the auditor’s opinion or any public interest report. They can also question the auditor and make an objection to the accounts, which the auditor is required to investigate unless he deems it to be vexatious or a duplicate of another request. That, I think, is an important provision, because it provides some safeguards for local authorities.
In all cases, whether the requester is an interested party or a local elector, the relevant authority is able to charge
“a reasonable sum for each copy” of any document that is made. I hope that that goes some way towards answering my hon. Friends’ questions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her Bill. I spoke during the debate on her last one.
I have some reservations about “reasonable” charges. We know about the pressures on local authorities and, despite references to reasonableness and vexatiousness, I am slightly wary of the possibility that serial troublemakers might submit requests to numerous councils. Can my hon. Friend reassure us that they will be protected from people who are just digging around?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention and for speaking in the debate on my previous Bill; I hope she will support me again this time. Reasonableness is important, and including the words “vexatious” and “duplications” should offer some reassurance, but if the Bill makes progress we could seek more clarity on this in Committee. We all work under tight budgets these days, so a balance always needs to be struck between openness and transparency, without too unreasonably high charges.
Members may wonder why I am introducing this Bill—why I have given up another Friday to stand here in the House of Commons, as I happen to quite enjoy Fridays. Members may also be a little puzzled as this is a rather technical amendment to audit legislation.
Hon. Members may recall my predecessor as MP for Aldridge-Brownhills, Sir Richard Shepherd. He has probably not had a mention in this place since I made my maiden speech, but my constituents often remind me about him. Sir Richard was a staunch defender of whistleblowers and fought for a more transparent and accountable Government and greater freedom of information: if we googled him, we would find many references to the work he did in this place on those topics. His principled stance on those issues resonated with many inside the Chamber and outside, and I am keen to see that that continues. The Bill speaks to those interests by seeking to make local government more transparent and subject to more effective public scrutiny of their spending, and I am sure we can all recall occasions or circumstances when such scrutiny might have been able to help.
The new rights I propose for journalists would provide access to the accounting records of any local authority, thus giving them an important tool. They would be able to access spending information across the piece that would aid their journalistic investigations and the publishing of their findings would provide local electors with information that might enable them to question the auditor or raise an objection, thus enabling them to better hold their local authority to account for poor spending decisions.
Why “journalists” and how do I define that term? I am conscious that Members might want to know why I do not propose extending the inspection rights to everyone or whether “journalist” is a suitable category for the definition of interested person.
Proposed new subsection 1A defines a journalist for the purpose of this new right as
“any person who produces for publication journalistic material (whether paid to do so or otherwise).”
As well as accredited members of the press, the term is intended to cover citizen journalists, by which I mean bloggers who meet the conditions, although it would not extend to anyone who simply has social media access.
My hon. Friend makes a valid case for what she is trying to achieve, but why journalists? Why not open it up to everybody to access these accounts? If we really want to be open, honest and transparent, surely we should not put any criteria or restrictions in place.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting and fair point, and I would not be against looking at that further in Committee, but I think it is the best way to strike a balance between openness and transparency and making requests reasonable for councils to deal with. Furthermore, a journalist or citizen blogger would be requesting information that they would then share with the wider public.
I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend is willing to consider the definition of a journalist in Committee, but we all have to recognise that journalism is changing. Accredited journalists will always come back for a comment and seek to put forward a balanced argument, but I am sure that we in this place have all been subjected to so-called citizen journalists who do not present their arguments with the same critical nature. Furthermore, journalism will probably have evolved another step by the time the Bill receives Royal Assent. Would it not be better to extend these rights to all people?
This power is already available to electors, but this group of journalists cannot currently access the information in question. I am trying to achieve that access for them in the Bill. I hope that I will be able to give my hon. Friend more clarity as I proceed with my speech. Otherwise, should the Bill go through today, she will be most welcome to serve on the Bill Committee.
Careful consideration has also been given to the language in the Bill. For example, by referring to “journalistic material”, the Bill focuses on what the person does. This would exclude someone who worked at a newspaper but compiled classified ads. I am trying to keep this really focused. Use of the term “publication” would exclude student journalists who compile journalistic material but do not publish it. I want to keep the focus on openness, transparency and the public.
Furthermore, other legislation defines “publication” as material having a public element. So, while the Bill might include journalistic material tweeted on Twitter, it would not include material circulated to a small, invitation-only Facebook group. It would also be unlikely to include material sent as a direct electronic message. It probably would include a blogger such as Guido Fawkes but not campaign groups such as 38 Degrees or SumOfUs. The extension of the rights to journalists alone has been the subject of careful consideration.
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. 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. I hope that that answers the question raised earlier by my hon. Friend Craig Whittaker, who is no longer in his place.
The matter of costs has been raised. Like others, I am conscious of budget pressures; I am, of course, keen not to place further burdens on councils. Therefore the Bill would not enable journalists to question the auditor about a local authority’s accounts. Nor would they be able to make a formal objection to the accounts, as a local elector can. Furthermore, the body would be able to recover the cost of providing any copies from the requestor.
I understand that the number of objections and questions received from local electors is small and, although the publication of articles detailing high or unorthodox expenditure in an area could result in more local electors asking questions of the auditor, the number who will take that next step is still likely to remain small, especially given the short time window available for inspecting the accounts. Again, I hope that that gives reassurance to Members who have asked about those matters today.
Central Government now write to all taxpayers to tell us how money is being spent. Does my hon. Friend think it would be a clever idea if local authorities were to publish exactly where they are spending all their money? That would bring it back to people’s minds.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point highlighting the importance of openness and transparency. Whether on car parking charges, which we were discussing earlier, or other matters of council finance, I believe there is public appetite for a greater understanding of what local and national Government are spending their money on.
May I also suggest that universities write to their students to tell them how they are spending their tuition fees? I tried to encourage that with a ten-minute rule Bill some time ago.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill builds on the requirement in the Localism Act 2011 that any local authority that wants to increase its council tax revenue by more than a certain percentage has to take the matter to a referendum? The Bill will bring more transparency and enhance what there is already.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is right, and her point goes back to the point I am trying to make about openness and transparency, which are at the heart of my Bill and which I believe the public want to see more of.
Following the abolition of the Audit Commission, it could be argued that local electors should have more awareness of their rights and be prepared to challenge councils on unacceptable spending, especially in the light of reducing resources. The Bill has the potential to provide local electors with information that will help to raise their awareness, which surely can only be a good thing.
I understand that the Government support the Bill’s intent and have previously signalled their intention to legislate on this issue at the earliest opportunity. My hon. Friend the Minister might wish to say a little more on that point in due course, but I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members present will support me in taking forward the Bill so that it receives its Second Reading and can go on to Committee and beyond.
I take my hat off to my hon. Friend Wendy Morton for her bravery in entering the private Member’s Bill raffle for two years running. I entered last year and was drawn ninth, and I am only just recovering from the process. For my hon. Friend to do it for two years running is either commendable or just downright greedy. I will leave the House to work out which it might be.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in his comments. Should he wish to follow the direction I have taken, perhaps I could point him down the route of presentation Bills. If one is willing to queue outside the Public Bill Office, it is possible to get a presentation Bill slot. If he would like me to explain a little more about that after the debate, I will be more than happy to do so.
Tempting as the thrill of being inducted overnight by my hon. Friend in the arcane rituals of securing a place for a Bill is, I hope she will not be too offended if I find I have a prior engagement when that invitation arrives at my desk.
This could almost become a parliamentary orgy, and we should probably avoid that at all costs. Rather than risk the wrath of your chastisement, Madam Deputy Speaker, by having a slightly arcane debate that may be more appropriate for the Procedure Committee, let me return to the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills introduced the Bill with her customary eloquence, and I support the principle behind it—who in all honesty would not? Government of all types, whether local or national, has no funds of itself and merely acts as a clearing house for council or national taxpayers.
We are not spending our money: that fundamental principle underpins a lot of Conservative party thinking, in sharp contrast to the Labour party, for example, which always believes that the state knows best and wants to take as much as it possibly can—[Interruption.] Jim McMahon, a former leader of Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council, is chuntering from a sedentary position, but I will leave him to defend his council tax-raising powers to his electorate at the appropriate time. It is absolutely pivotal that voters and members of the public have access to as much information as possible on the finances spent on their behalf.
My next point was also made by some hon. Friends. There will be some issues to be teased out in Committee—I hope the Bill reaches that stage—but I fear that the Bill could in some respects be described as an analogue Bill for a digital age. For example, proposed new subsection (1A) in clause 1 refers to both “journalists” and “publication”. As I mentioned in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, we spent quite a bit of time during the Investigatory Powers Bill Committee desperately trying to wrestle with what a journalist is in 2016. Not even the towering intellects of the Solicitor General and my right hon. Friend Mr Hayes could come up with a definition that adequately reflected what a journalist is in today’s world. In the 1950s and 1960s, it would have been rather easier: journalists would have carried a NUJ card; they would have written for their local newspapers or broadcast on their local radio station; or they would have published in a national newspaper or periodical.
I move on to the word “publication”. We would have understood what it meant in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s; it was either publication by verbal broadcast or in hard copy. Today, the lines are not so clear. If I use my iPhone to take a photograph or write something on my Facebook page or blog, am I a citizen journalist? I do not know. Would my rights be enshrined within the Bill?
I agree entirely. I would add another differential, which is that, as much as I am a champion of a free press, there are many who publish online today without knowing that they are actually covered by the libel laws, as we have seen in a number of cases, and without the double-check of a sub-editor, an editor or a chief news reporter—there will be nobody to sense-check their work, and I will come on to that in a moment or so.
If we turn to clause 1(2), we see the phrase “related documents”. Again, I am absolutely certain that the issue will be teased out in Committee, which will add value, cogency and clarity to the Bill.
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. Whether it is citizen journalists or NUJ journalists, we need that transparency and the expertise of armchair accountants.
“Up to a point, Lord Copper” is how I would answer that. My hon. Friend perhaps has very good eyesight, and she would have to in order to read my notes, but she slightly pre-empts something I am coming on to. First, however, I want to talk about “related documents”.
Before coming to this place, I was a district councillor and a county councillor, like many people in the House. I was involved in trying to raise additional funds for our local authority by purchasing commercial property. Some of those transactions would take a little time, but there was documentation available to cabinet members so that we could look at the figures. I take my hon. Friend’s point, because it goes back to my earlier point that local councils have no money themselves, only council tax payers’ money, but we need to think about the precise time often commercially sensitive financial data would be available and would fall under the Bill.
I also note—I do not say this necessarily with overt seriousness—that I take exception to one word in the Bill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills should be alert to the gravity and depth of my exception. There is an odd juxtaposition in the marvellous language of the Bill—that wonderful prose with which any Bill begins, which we are all, of course, familiar with:
“Be it enacted by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows”.
We then refer to “citizen journalists”. It is the word “citizen” that we should all take exception to. It is a word that republics may very well use, but we are subjects of Her Britannic Majesty. Therefore, while the words “subject journalists” might not necessarily be as easy on the tongue, they do reflect a better sense of our island nation’s history. If my hon. Friend is lucky enough to secure a Second Reading of her Bill, and daft enough to put me on the Committee, I may very well wish to table an amendment on that issue. Whether I would press it to a Division, I will leave that to my hon. Friend to cogitate on over the coming hours.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because he is clearly making a pitch to be on my Bill Committee, should I be successful today. All I will say to him is that I will add him to my list and I will consider that request in due course.
My hon. Friend is clearly exploring the opportunity for another career; I will leave it to the House to consider what it might be.
This important Bill is required because, as was said when we discussed Lords amendments to the Investigatory Powers Bill and section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 on freedom of the press and Leveson, we are seeing a big diminution in local and regional media, and that is having a significant and damaging effect on how information is shared nationally. The days when the local newspaper reporter, with his or her pad and pencil, attended the finance committee, full council, cabinet or the planning or housing committee have, regrettably, gone. It is now often the case that one journalist covers a very large geographical area, and that is not restricted to rural areas; it is also a phenomenon in town and cities.
My own part of the world, North Dorset, does not have a daily or weekly newspaper. We have the most excellent publication, Blackmore Vale Magazine, and Valley News. The first is weekly, the second monthly. Those free publications are available to the subjects of North Dorset—if you live by the sword, you have to die by the sword when you make those sorts of remarks—and they are excellent. That is how people get news, but they do not have the staff or the journalists to cover district or council meetings.
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. If the journalist behind a small publication lived in Poole in Dorset, that person—or subject, as my hon. Friend puts it—would not be able to get the information under discussion. He is showing why the Bill is so important.
My hon. Friend demonstrates his perspicacity, and that is why he is a Minister of the Crown and I am not. He gets my point entirely. A vacuum is being created and it needs to be filled, if for no other reason than democratic accountability.
In all seriousness, we need to consider a couple of caveats, if and as the Bill proceeds, which I hope it will. When the Freedom of Information Act went through this place, it was said that it would not represent a financial burden to local authorities, but it has and it does. We have to consider the Bill against the backdrop of a prevailing picture of a change in local authority funding and a reduction in the direct grant, as we continue to hoover and shovel up the mess left by the Labour party at the end of its period in office.
We also have to take into account the fact that there has been—I welcomed this when I was a local authority member and championed it hugely—an enormous local government reorganisation of shared and combined services. It is also the case—I am sure that this will resonate with Jim McMahon, given his experience of local government—that there are far fewer local authority officers who are able to deal with requests from the public. Moreover, local government reorganisation—this is certainly the case with my own council in Dorset—will involve unravelling, over probably the next three to 10 years, the financial meshings and harmonisations of council taxes.
Let me just finish this point, because it is very important. That will take the integrity and knowledge of a chartered accountant at least to be able to follow it.
Let me go back to the point I made a moment ago about the sad absence of local journalists in the council chamber. The fact that they are there, and that the information can be provided to them, does not necessarily mean that they understand what they are seeing. I can well recall a headline in my local paper that said, “Council to Slash Flood Defence Budget,” but we were not going to. I had the local journalist in and we sat and discussed it for an hour. Literally the same sum of money was being moved from one budget head to another. Could he grasp it? No, he could not, even though I explained it to him on at least half a dozen occasions. Therefore, with the right of access to information has to come an obligation from the person accessing it to be responsible for at least making sure that they understand and can contextualise what they are being made privy to. If, particularly in a local authority setting, these sorts of things are viewed in a silo and not seen as a bigger picture, that will often lead to a huge amount of confusion.
Does my hon. Friend not think that the public could write to the local authority explaining where the council could be making savings and help them with priorities? That could appear in such wonderful organs as the Plymouth Herald in my constituency—a daily newspaper that is always looking for copy.
My hon. Friend tantalises the House with the wonder of his organ, but we had better be careful on that one as well. I happen to know the Plymouth Herald pretty well. It is a great champion of local stories, which it covers extremely well. I never quite think it gives enough coverage to my hon. Friend—hopefully the editor of that journal might listen to that—or indeed, to my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer. [Interruption.] Or to my hon. Friend Mr Streeter. [Interruption.] Well, let us not get too carried away. I often think that if my hon. Friend Oliver Colvile was “Mr January” and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View was “Mr the rest of the months”, the ladies of Plymouth would be delighted. That is up to editorial control and I am going to leave it to them. However, with freedom has to come responsibility.
I also wish to say a few words about vexatiousness. I can think of an occasion when somebody might get the bit between their teeth, and no matter how clearly it is spelt out to them that they have get the wrong end of the stick, they seem not to be able to grasp it and persist and persist. They will often go and tell their local newspaper that they are persisting. That can be damaging to the reputation and corporate profile of the local authority and potentially adds costs to the administration of the local authority.
My hon. Friend’s points about the burdens of freedom of information requests and the reduced number of staff are interesting. Would he consider that fair and reasonable costs of providing that information could be the actual costs of doing so?
I agree entirely and add that those fees should be paid up-front rather than retrospectively, because trying to get hold of that money afterwards can often be very difficult.
I am conscious of the time so I will draw my remarks to a close. I do not want my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills to think for an iota of a nanosecond that I am opposed to her Bill. Far from it—I support it. Why? For the sacred principles of conservatism. The first principle is that we are spending other people’s money and that the people who give it to the local authority or the Government have a right to know how it is being spent. The second principle is that the Bill clearly seeks to fill a vacuum by providing information to a new set of people whose aspirations and inquiries would probably have been covered in the local media. I hope that local media are not in decline, but they are certainly in a period of shrinkage and recalibration.
The principle of the Bill is fundamentally important—to provide access on behalf of taxpayers to information from local authorities and from other bodies that may be added to the Bill as and when it is goes into Committee. I think that that is fantastically important because the key word in the title of the Act that this Bill will amend is not “local” or “audit”, but “accountability”. We are accountable to our constituents in whichever forum we seek to represent them for the money we spend or allocate on their behalf—there should be no opportunity to hide, mask or obfuscate in relation to the audit trail—and we must ensure that people have confidence in how public bodies spend the hard-earned money of hard-pressed taxpayers.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Wendy Morton for bringing forward the Bill. It is a very simple Bill, which many of us will find quite refreshing for a Friday. It is really a Bill to repair things, following the passage of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014. I thank my hon. Friend for introducing it, because it has given me an opportunity to get a greater feel for the existing legislation. I perhaps should have had a little more awareness of it, given that in a former life I was the chairman of an audit committee in a unitary authority. In that role, I was very aware of what we should do: how we should be open and transparent, and how we should listen to the public when they raise queries about how their money is spent by their elected representatives.
My hon. Friend explained why she has given up a Friday to be in the Chamber. I am giving up my Friday for a very similar reason, which is to try to advance a Bill. Unfortunately, my Bill is No. 5 this afternoon, but I am very pleased to be able to consider and support my hon. Friend’s Bill.
May I take a moment to congratulate my hon. Friend on his Bill, at No. 5, which is extremely important? He and I are most passionate about it, because we do not like exports of live animals.
I thank my hon. Friend for the support he would have given my Bill, had we reached it, but we have not. Let us therefore consider very carefully the Bill to amend the Local Audit and Accountability Act. Very soon after it became law, the Government recognised that the terminology of “persons interested” should be expanded, and that is what the Bill is trying to achieve.
We would not have got to this point had a council not tried to hide behind the legislation and examined what “persons interested” actually means. Bristol City Council obfuscated on a request by HTV, the western brand of the ITV network, in 2004. It is quite remarkable that the council felt that it was reasonable to spend taxpayers’ money on fighting, under the legislation at the time, what I imagine was a reasonable freedom of information request for transparency about what it was doing. Journalists can be troublesome people—
My hon. Friend is being very generous with interventions. First, does he agree that journalism and investigative journalism are important in ensuring that there is full accountability in our democracy? Secondly, does he agree that FOIs are incredibly important in finding out information that large authorities often try to conceal?
I was about to explain the power and importance of a free press to a democratic society. To my mind, FOIs are very important. It is important that journalists and members of the public can shine a light into areas of government—today, we are considering local government in particular—that might otherwise have remained in the dark. Many right hon. and hon. Members, including those present, will have experience of journalists. They often give us a tough time, and so they should. Sometimes it is deserved, though sometimes it is not.
A very good example of that type of journalism is when the BBC looked into the Circuit of Wales. A £10 million grant that was given to it led to more than £1 million of public money being wasted. It was transferred to the private company of the Circuit of Wales’ director, Aventa Capital, and many thousands of pounds were spent on gardening fees for his garden. Good journalism can highlight those wastes of public money.
I thank my hon. Friend for putting that on the parliamentary record. That shows that we cannot always rely on external, or even internal, auditors of councils, who have materiality levels to consider. It is often individuals, particularly the press, working through FOIs who shine a light on various areas.
As I was saying, we are sometimes deservedly, and sometimes not deservedly, investigated by the press, but bodies that spend public funds deserve no protection whatever from the eyes and ears of the press. I say again how important a free press is to democratic accountability in this country, whether in central Government, Departments, quangos or local authorities.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills for explaining the extent of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014. It covers fire and rescue authorities, police authorities, parks, local and combined authorities, and parishes and town councils, beyond the £25,000 threshold. The 2014 Act does not restrict the definition of individual electors. Indeed, that was expanded through the case that was brought against Bristol City Council. It allows members of the local press to make inquiries, because they are likely to be local electors.
I thank my hon. Friend Simon Hoare for making a relevant point about the sad demise of local reporters and the local press. I have two local newspapers, the Isle of Thanet Gazette and the Thanet Extra. Once the homes section of the newspaper has been shaken out, there is not much left. The opportunity for local reporters to go to council meetings and attend civic events has diminished greatly. That reflects changes in advertising revenue, which often underpins local newspapers, as more and more material goes online—a point ably made by other colleagues. The whole movement online raises the question of what “publication” means. It means something very different from what it did in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
That brings me on to the question of what a journalist is. Given my ideas on open and democratic government, accountability, and people’s ability to ask questions, I would be more comfortable allowing anyone to make a request under the Bill. However, I fully understand how vexatious those who seem to be serial question-askers can be. We have to balance that tendency with the cost to local government of supplying information that has been asked for.
The term “citizen journalist” has been mentioned, although I fully agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset: I do not subscribe to being a citizen; I would rather remain a subject, so “subject reporters” may be a better term. However, am I a subject journalist? Possibly; I do Twitter and Facebook, and my Facebook account is open, not closed, so perhaps I, too, am a subject journalist. It worries me when legislation that comes through the House has slightly vague terminology, as a lot of it does. We may have an opportunity in Committee to get rid of any vagueness about the term “journalist”, and to get to what I feel my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills intends, namely that this type of inquiry is narrowed down to people who really have an interest in reporting and looking at matters rather more closely, in the public interest.
In the same vein of getting some context on what is defined as journalism, is my hon. Friend aware of the huge rise in fake news websites around the world, which specifically—I have just googled this—attempt to
“play on gullible people who do not check sources”,
and will simply pass the fake news on, as if it were really true? How do we get around that problem?
My hon. Friend makes an enormously interesting point. In the modern world, there are new websites that simply drag in bits of information from other, more credible, websites and pass it off as their own.
We are now struggling with what “journalist” really means. Perhaps that can be battened down a little more in Committee. Arguably that definition could be even wider—as I have said, I would be comfortable with that—with anyone being involved, given that arguably every voter in the UK has an interest in every single authority because of the national grant that passes from this place, through the Department for Communities and Local Government, to local authority level. Perhaps everyone has an interest, but we need nevertheless to narrow the definition down away from the vexatious inquirer with whom we are all very familiar.
I will leave my remarks there, but in support of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, I say that it is quite right that journalism should play a key role in our democracy. People have the right to ask questions about any fund-holding body spending money in their name, so I struggle to find any reason to be against the Bill. I wish it every support possible in its next stages. Any rough edges will be ironed out in Committee.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker; I was beginning to think that the time would never come. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I am a serving member of Oldham Council. I thank Wendy Morton for bringing the Bill forward for debate.
We share the same end: when spending public money and making decisions, public bodies need to be accountable to the public. We need to make sure that information is easily accessible, and that people can access it in more ways than by viewing it in the cold reception of a council office; we need to do something about making it available electronically for people to view.
We should also explore why the Bill narrows down the definition of journalist. That point has come out slightly in the debate, but I am not sure that we have quite got to the spirit of what the Bill is trying to achieve—namely that anyone with a legitimate interest in finding the information should have the right to access it. We should not predetermine the motives of an organisation or individual; a spirit of openness should be the foundation for providing information. We can imagine a situation in which an academic might want to carry out legitimate research into how public money is spent, and might require that deep dive into the accounts. We can also imagine a situation in which a resident of a neighbouring or similar authority, investigating his local authority’s spend and wanting a comparator, would like to be able to look at such information. We can see that a wider group of people than just journalists might legitimately want that information.
I am not sure that it is necessary for this place to judge the motives of journalists, or to debate the quality of journalism. I often go into the Members’ Tea Room and question why we waste money on some of the newspapers on the rack, but it is right that people have access to information, and that journalists put that information out in the right way. However, journalism is changing very quickly and we need to review this issue. Rather than being prescriptive, perhaps the answer is to offer it out to a wider group of people and let them access it, and to recognise that what people choose to do with it is a matter for them; it is public information. That is how it should be dealt with. The Bill has the support of the Government, which is good to see. It is also good to see that it has the support of the Local Government Association, which is a champion of transparency and open government.
It is a shame that we have been so busy today that the private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend Steve McCabe has not been debated. It is on a very important issue that affects many communities. Family homes are being amended for a use that may not be in keeping with local neighbourhoods, taking away vital family housing and having a negative impact on the community. I pay tribute to him for at least putting this very important issue high up on the list of private Members’ Bills.
The Local Audit (Public Access to Documents) Bill appears to be quite technical, but I fully recognise that it is very important, in terms of the spirit of democracy and transparency.
It is a pleasure to speak in favour of this extremely important private Member’s Bill brought to the House by my hon. Friend Wendy Morton.
The Government believe that the issue is worthy of our support. The clear intention to legislate on this issue goes back to December 2014 in the then Conservative-led coalition Government’s response to the consultation exercise on secondary legislation implementing the new local audit regime. I would like to quote the exact wording used in paragraph 4.11 of that response:
“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’ (see section 26 of the 2014 Act) is wide enough to enable this”
The Minister is making a typically polished and erudite speech from the Dispatch Box, but there is one thing that troubles me about this measure. What exactly will it cover that is not already covered by measures in the Freedom of Information Act 2000? I can make a freedom of information request about a council’s accounts and obtain the information anyway. Will he help me and other hon. Members to understand how all this works?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes an extremely pertinent point, which I will come on to. The Bill will be an important aid in the fight to improve local transparency and accountability by amending section 26 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014. Journalists, including citizen journalists, will be afforded the same rights as “persons interested”. They will be enabled, for 30 days, to inspect the accounting records of the financial year just ended of any relevant authority and request copies of these documents.
Hon. Members might wonder how such a small change could improve local transparency and accountability, and about the potential associated costs—both points raised by several hon. Friends. I hope that I can reassure the House on both. On the first, 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, and publication of their findings could alert local taxpayers to poor spending decisions. As a result, local electors might wish to seek information from the auditor or object to the accounts, thus enabling the auditor to investigate. The measure could therefore increase town hall transparency and accountability.
On the costs, we are not introducing a new right, but extending an existing one to include journalists. Furthermore, the timeframe for these requests is limited to a month in each year, and the body concerned can recover the costs of providing any copies from the requester. The Bill will enable journalists only to examine the documents and seek copies; they will not be able to question the auditor or make objections. Those rights could still only be exercised by local electors, as is the case now.
Would it not help if local authorities were much more proactive in revealing information, rather than people having to depend on FIO requests or journalists picking up the phone? If local authorities could be much more aggressively transparent, it would be incredibly helpful.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is often easy to forget that some local authorities are extremely good, have high-quality members and officers, are open and transparent and offer up the type of information to which he alludes. That said, others are not so transparent and open. It would be great if they could all follow the examples of best practice to which he refers, but that is regrettably not always the case, which is why we support the Bill.
My only hesitation concerns the role of the auditor. Might another burden put off some auditors and thereby call their role into question? I am sure that will be teased out in Committee.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I can reassure her that the role of the auditor will not change. The current situation is that local electors can make requests of the auditor for further information and objections to the audit, but those who are not electors in that area cannot.
While we welcome the extension to include journalists, might not the Government—in the interests of honesty, openness and accountability—consider in Committee opening things up completely, well beyond the intention of the Bill, so that anybody can access this information?
I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I shall come on to that point a little later and explain why the balance is right.
To return to the issue of costs, it is our view that only a relatively small group of journalists or bloggers might wish to take advantage of the new rights. We recognise the potential for increased costs if a journalist running a national campaign asked for particular information from a raft of local authorities on issues such as salaries in local authorities or the cost of refurbishment. I suggest that that might not necessarily be a bad thing.
I shall make some progress, if I may.
This provision might make local public bodies think more carefully about high levels of expenditure on certain items and how it might look to the general public during periods of financial constraint and reduced public spending.
I should also point out that the 2014 Act includes an explicit power for auditors to refuse to consider vexatious objections, and even if several electors were to ask the same question or make the same objection, the auditor need undertake only one investigation, although a reply to each individual with the outcome might be necessary. The auditor is able to recover any reasonable costs of carrying out this work from the authority concerned. However, if the work results in increased costs, it could be argued that that might cause the authority to consider its future expenditure more carefully.
The Minister is making a passionate speech and is being so generous in taking interventions. I want to push him a bit harder on one aspect. Under this measure, journalists cannot raise objections or question the auditor. I used to sit on Lambeth Council in the days when it was called “loonyland” and was as bent as a corkscrew. Will the Minister reconsider whether, in such cases, journalists should be able to question the auditor and press him a bit harder, because if that had happened, things might not have come to such a pass in the London Borough of Lambeth as they did under old Red Ted Knight?
I thank my hon. Friend. The overarching objective here is to enable a journalist who might not be an elector in a particular area to uncover that sort of information and bring it to the public’s attention, so that the public can then question the auditor. There are a number of examples of where that has happened to positive effect, with changes having to be made by a local authority as a result.
The overarching objective of external public audit must be the proper use of public money, and if an elector objects and it results in investigations by the auditor, he is doing his job and any resulting delay in completion of the audit or additional cost to the body must be seen as a secondary consideration.
I apologise, but I will not because I want to make sufficient progress so that the Bill receives its Second Reading.
It might be helpful here to illustrate the difference between this provision and the powers provided by the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke mentioned. 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 that would enable a journalist to bring them to the attention of local electors by publishing the evidence uncovered. That would provide electors with the opportunity to ask the auditor about the issue or raise an objection so that the auditor can investigate the matter further, and it would potentially enable action to be taken to investigate poor spending, potential fraud or maladministration within a local public body. FOI requests, while being subject to timing constraints in terms of providing a response, do not have the same capability for potentially engendering swift action that could have the effect of stopping illegal activity.
As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, the smallest parish councils—those with an annual turnover of £25,000 or less—will not be subject to the Bill, because they are subject to separate provisions under the 2014 Act. They must follow a different transparency code which we believe works for them.
I know that some stakeholders have expressed reservations about the value of the Bill, and about whether the potential costs will outweigh the benefits, but I firmly believe that enabling journalists to inspect the accounting records of a range of local authorities could uncover more poor spending decisions by councils, which in turn would lead to more potential objections from electors. Although the existing rights are not often exercised, this kind of transparency has, in the past, enabled illegal activity and poor governance in local authorities to be uncovered. My hon. Friend the Member for Dover gave a good example involving failings on the part of a local authority, but there are other examples. In the event of poor decision-making and maladministration in councils, it is entirely reasonable for local electors to be able to obtain information and shine a light on what is going on. They may not be financial experts, but the Bill will add another tool to the box, and enable them to hold their local authorities to account.
I stress that the timescale for action would be limited, and that the window of opportunity, and thus the additional cost that Members have mentioned, would be restricted to the 30-day period in which the previous year’s accounts would be available and the inspection rights could be exercised. Any questions or objections would also have to be received within that period to enable an investigation to take place.
The measures in the Bill are proportionate and they could help to uncover poor practice so that people could hold their local councils to account. I am delighted to be able to support the Bill, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills for introducing it.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (