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Secrecy breeds suspicion

Local government reforms were in danger of missing their target unlessmeetings were held in public, Labour councillors and party activists were warned.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, told a fringe meeting at the Labour Local Governance Conference in Blackpool: “Secrecy breeds suspicion andcontempt. Openness breeds respect.”

Urging the meeting, organised by the Labour Campaign for Open LocalGovernment, to support amendments to the Local Government Bill, which iscurrently going through the House of Lords, he said: “The Government says itwants to engage and involve the public in decisions. Many local councils arealready making changes ahead of legislation and some of them are using themas an excuse to go back to their old, secretive ways.

“There was a long hard fight to open up local councils in the 60s and 70s.We don’t intend to give that up. You will not engage the public and promotedebate unless meetings of new cabinet style committees and scrutinycommittees are open to the media and the public.”

Mr Satchwell quoted a BBC On the Record TV programme in which Alison Hastings,editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle, said:” It’s quite an easyargument. Don’t have meetings in private if you don’t want to be accused ofbeing secretive.”

Ms Hastings told of her experience in Newcastle under the newcommittee system.

“You don’t know where to go to find out and to chasewhat’s happening,” she said. “Decisions are now being made very often by one member ofthe cabinet who has special responsibility for that area and one paidcouncil officer.

“That doesn’t appear to me to be a particularly democratic way of makingdecisions that affect hundreds of thousands of people’s lives day in, dayout.”

Mr Satchwell told the meeting that some councils, notably in Leeds, werefinding ways of ensuring that the new system was open to the public and themedia. The society did not have a view on which system local councilsadopted, so long as meetings were held in public and that agenda papers weremade available in advance.

Councillors leading the campaign within the Labour party praised regionaleditors for taking the fight to the government.

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