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Joy at breakthroughon council secrecy

Councils will have to meet in public when they make key decisions under the new Local Government Bill.

The Government has accepted arguments put forward by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, supported by the Society of Editors, the Newspaper Society and other media organisations and will change the Local Government Bill next week.

New regulations will mean that councils must meet in public when key decisions are being discussed. This will be subject to existing exemptions that allow councils to go “below the line” but the Government has said the exemptions will be reviewed.

There will also be a new clause requiring council officers to list background papers used in drawing up reports when those reports are made public.

The Government will also introduce rules for the introduction of council forward plans, which will mean they will have to give advance notice of forthcoming decisions.

Andrew Ecclestone, of the CFoI, said: “These are very welcome steps by the Government in acknowledging the concerns of many organisations and the media about preserving openness in decision making.

“We are pleased that people will have the same rights as they have now when key decisions are being taken by a council which can affect their lives.”

“We have always said that it is important to be able to witness discussions between officers and councillors and not just rely on paper reports.”

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said the news was “a victory for common sense”.

“It represents significant progress. All credit to all those editors who have written letters to MPs and raised the issues with readers, listeners and viewers,” he said.

One of the most vigorous regional press campaigns against council secrecy has been waged by the Nottingham Evening Post, which splashed on the breakthrough yesterday.

It quote “a source close to the Government” as saying that the Post’s campaign had brought about change.

“The story about Notts County Council’s secret cabinet plans has gone around the Commons. I know ministers have seen it and it reinforced the view that cabinets have got to be open,” the source said.

A spokesman for the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions told the paper: “We are recognising people’s concerns about secrecy by making it clear that it will be against the law not to act in an open and accountable way.”

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