A new set of government regulations came into force on 10 September 2012 which increase the level of scrutiny to which local government is subject. The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 ("the Regulations"), replace previously existing regulations from 2000 and apply to county councils, district councils and London borough councils in England.
The Regulations set out a number of requirements which will have an impact on the way in which local authorities conduct their meetings and make decisions. These requirements include the following:
- Meetings of the 'decision-making body' of a local authority need to be held in public. However, the public may be excluded from such meetings if confidential information is likely to be disclosed during the course of the meeting, or if necessary to maintain orderly conduct.
- Local authorities must provide the public with at least 28 days notice if a meeting is to be held in private. This must include details of the reasons why it is necessary to hold the meetings in private.
- An officer of the local authority intending to make a 'key decision' (one which is likely to involve significant expenditure or otherwise have a significant impact on the local community) must publish a document setting out the details of that decision. This document must be available for public inspection at least 28 days before the decision is made.
- Where executive decisions are made by officers at meetings held by local authorities, written statements must be produced by those officers. These statements will provide the public with a record of that decision, the reason it was made and any alternative options open to the officer in question.
- Members of overview and scrutiny committees for local authorities are to have additional rights of access. These will include the ability to obtain any document in the possession or under the control of the local authority which contains material relating to business carried out by that authority, or to decisions made by officers of that authority.
- Intentionally obstructing the rights of individuals to documents which are required to be available for inspection will be a criminal offence.
The new Regulations are part of a general trend towards increasing openness and transparency in public bodies and form part of the Government's wider transparency agenda. Of particular interest in the new Regulations is the requirement for executive decisions and the reasoning behind those decisions to be documented. Not only will this obligation place an additional burden on the officers responsible for making such decisions but the information recorded will be subject to release under the Freedom of Information Act, allowing a much greater level of scrutiny of the decision making process by the public than might otherwise have been available.