Parliament: Local Governemnt - Labour offers safeguards against town-hall sleaze

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The Independent Online
STRINGENT SAFEGUARDS on freedom of information are to be imposed on town halls across the country to ensure that elected mayors and cabinet- style governments do not descend into secret cabals.

The draft Local Government Bill published today will make it a criminal offence for any council to refuse to publish details of how decisions are made. To reduce the danger of secrecy and corruption, powerful scrutiny committees will also have the right to call mayors and cabinet members to account.

The proposals have been included in the Bill to counter criticism that the creation of directly elected mayors and other executive forms of government will lead to over-centralisation.

The long-awaited legislation will aim to transform councils by allowing just 5 per cent of the local electorate to trigger a referendum on a mayoralty. Ministers hope that local newspapers will campaign for a referendum in their area, bypassing obstructive councillors who refuse to stage a poll.

The Bill will also feature tough new codes of ethics for all councillors and officers, with regional standards boards with the power to exclude politicians from office if they breach the guidelines.

However, the Liberal Democrats were adamant last night that mayors and cabinets could exacerbate the problem of town-hall sleaze. Paul Burstow, the party's local government spokesman, said that the only real solution was to introduce proportional representation (PR) for councils.

"This Bill could simply institutionalise the control of town halls by domineering leaders," he said. "If ministers are serious about tackling sleaze, they must introduce fair votes for local government... Without PR, Labour's rotten boroughs will be able to get away with creating all powerful, one-party executives, accountable to no one but their own political friends."

Tories attempted last night to delay the passage of the Local Government Bill as it reached its report and third-reading stages. The legislation will end universal budget capping and scrap compulsory competitive tendering introduced by the Thatcher government. Conservative MPs filibustered in protest at the CCT proposals and the speed with which Labour was aiming to clear it from the Commons.