Under an obscure Act of Parliament - the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 - every member of the public has the right to gain access to a wide range of key local government documents, including: agendas, advance notice and minutes of meetings of councils and their committees and sub-committees; officer reports and background documents referred to at those meetings; and, above all, the 1985 Act entitles the public the right of access to most council meetings.
The public can be excluded only when genuinely confidential information is being discussed, such as personnel matters or disputes involving individual recipients of council services - and even then a summary of the business discussed behind closed doors must appear in the resulting minutes.
But the 1985 Act has one major flaw - there is no legal duty on the part of local authorities or central government to publicise these provisions, and therefore the public has no awareness of its right of access to official information. Indeed, a recent comprehensive survey of all local government authorities in England and Wales found that the majority fail to comply fully with the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. There is simply nobody there to prevent local authorities from driving a coach and horses through one of our rare freedom of information laws.
This, though, provides us with some insight into the national disease of official secrecy. Local councils are a governmental microcosm; the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 is a model Freedom of Information Act. Perhaps we can now see the likely consequences of a Freedom of Information Act for central government - should one ever be proposed. One sure way of rendering it useless is to enshroud it in secrecy. The Citizen's Charter, it seems, stands little chance.
In the meantime the Audit Commission's flood of information will prove to be deceptive, not least because that information will relate to the effects of local government decisions rather than the decision-making process itself.
The writer is author of 'The Freedom of Information Handbook' (Bloomsbury, 1990).Reuse content