Rebellion looms over 'secret' council plans

The Government faced fresh accusations of secrecy yesterday as Labour MPs joined forces with the Tory Opposition to attack plans forcing councils to make key decisions behind closed doors.

Several senior Labour MPs spoke against the Department of the Environment's proposals to create powerful town hall cabinets to run local authorities. Plans in the Local Government Bill abolish committee structures and councils adopting executive cabinets will hold meetings in private.

Labour councillors and local newspaper editors say the moves will remove the public's right to know about decisions taken in their name.

During the Second Reading debate of the bill, Hilary Armstrong, the Local Government Minister, was attacked repeatedly by Labour colleagues for failing to allay fears over centralisation and secrecy. Mark Fisher, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent, said the Government would turn important meetings into secret party caucuses.

"How on earth will executive meetings in closed session help the participation of the public?" he said. "They will simply be presented with a fait accompli. How does that make participation or transparency greater?"

Ms Armstrong admitted council executives would not meet in public, but claimed decisions and the reasons would be published later. She agreed councils which ran pilot schemes had not adhered to guidance that stressed no decisions should be a "surprise to those whom they affect".

More than 181 MPs have signed an early day motion criticising the proposals.