Debate in public, MPs tell secretive councils

Satchwell: "editors are concerned"


John Prescott is under pressure to free councils to take more key decisions in public following damning evidence that reporters are staying away from meetings which merely rubber stamp decisions already taken in private.

An influential cross-party committee of MPs has revealed that, instead of reviving interest in local government, the switch from the traditional committee to a cabinet system has led to fewer reporters and members of the public turning up for meetings.

"Our evidence suggests that in many councils, decisions continue to be made in private and are merely being rubber stamped or justified in public," the MPs said in a report to Parliament this week.

"Public awareness of who is taking decisions has not improved and public and media interest has, if anything, reduced," it said.

Now the urban affairs committee, headed by Labour MP Andrew Bennett, has urged the Deputy Prime Minister to allow councils to define key or controversial decisions, instead of leaving it to Government guidance.

Under the new cabinet system key decisions must be publicised in advance, with relevant papers made available, and meetings held in public.

"What is controversial locally may be hard to predict nationally," the MPs told Prescott.

The committee’s report is timely. Local government minister Nick Raynsford has already promised the Government’s guidance will be reviewed this summer.

The committee’s move was welcomed by Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, which has argued that key decisions should be determined locally.

"This is not about the financial value of key decisions," Satchwell said. "It is how it affects the local community that is important."

Evidence that the press and public are ignoring meetings will be worrying for ministers who claimed that the Local Government Act would revive interest in the workings of local government.

Satchwell said: "We are disappointed that some councils may have used the act to reduce the flow of information.

"We have always warned that if councils want to be secretive the legislation would allow them to be.

Satchwell added: "Some papers are having no problems but I know some editors are concerned."

By David Rose

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