Committee (3rd Day)

Part of Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 29th June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 3:15 pm, 29th June 2015

My Lords, Amendment 42A seeks to insert a new clause regarding access for the press and public to combined authority meetings. Whatever the whys or wherefores of the press’s engagement with council meetings, I am happy to confirm that legislation already exists on these issues. As my noble friend Lord Brooke has pointed out, the Local Government Act 1972 provides that all meetings of a combined authority must be open to the public except in limited, defined circumstances.

A meeting of a combined authority, as with other council meetings, may be closed to the public in only two circumstances: if the presence of the public is likely to result in the authority breaching a legal obligation about the keeping of confidential information; and if the authority decides, by the passing of a resolution of its members, that exempt information—for example, information relating to the financial affairs of a particular person—would likely be disclosed.

The Conservative-led coalition Government made new regulations in 2014 to make it absolutely clear that a combined authority is required to allow any member of the public or press to take photographs, film, audio record and report on all public meetings. This openness helps to ensure that combined authorities are genuinely accountable to the local people they serve. It also ensures genuine transparency in this digital age, where our democracy can be enhanced by the use of social media and blogging to communicate widely and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said, to capture the market that does not want to spend more than 30 seconds reading such matters.

These requirements apply equally to any committees or sub-committees of a combined authority, including any overview and scrutiny committees. Sub-section (1)(a) of the proposed amendment refers to a meeting between a mayor and the relevant combined authority. I should clarify that the mayor will be a member of the combined authority—indeed, will be the chairman—so such a meeting would simply be a meeting of the combined authority and is covered by these rules. Similarly, a meeting of the leaders of a combined authority, if I understand the noble Lord’s meaning, will be a meeting of the members of a combined authority, who are most likely—although not always—to be the leaders of the constituent councils.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked about Schedule 3. This is an enabling provision which ensures that there is flexibility to decide which information can be appropriately disclosed or must be discussed. For example, certain information may be commercially confidential or contain sensitive personal information.

I hope that, with these reassurances, the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.