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Posted by: John Brace | November 3, 2013

Labour U-turn on filming of Wirral Council public meetings


Labour U-turn on filming of Wirral Council public meetings

                          

It’s rare I write a blog post on a Sunday but I thought it best to write an update about how the issue of filming of council meetings (at least in England) is progressing as it was discussed in the House of Commons on Monday 28th October as part of the second reading of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill.

I will quote from what MPs said in that debate along with my own comments on what was said. The quotes are from Hansard, you can also watch video footage of the debate on Parliament TV (the date was Monday 28th October 2013), but as the debate went on for many hours it can be difficult to find the parts about filming.

First to speak on this issue was the Minister for Communities and Local Government, the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP who said, “Perhaps our most significant proposal is to give people the right to film, blog or tweet at council meetings. Some councils would prefer meetings to be held behind closed doors, but the public has the right to see decisions being taken and how the money is spent.

A private Member’s Bill promoted by Mrs Thatcher introduced the right to attend council meetings back in 1960, and that in turn built on a law introduced by the Liberal Government of 1908, so this is truly a coalition of minds. It is right that we should now bring her legacy up to date for the digital age. We have previously amended secondary legislation to open up councils’ executive meetings and have encouraged councils to open up their full council and committees. Many have refused, however, citing health and safety, data protection or just standing orders. Tower Hamlets said that such a change would lead to “reputational damage”. Well, yes, it probably will when people see what is going on in their council chambers. There have even been cases of the police being called to threaten bloggers with arrest. We will therefore make the necessary changes to primary legislation to allow full councils and committees to be open as well.

Our argument is that the coalition Government are scrapping the top-down red tape of Whitehall inspection and micro-management. That will save taxpayers’ money and help to devolve power, but it must go hand in hand with local transparency and accountability. We must ensure an independent free press and scrutinise and challenge bad decisions by councils. Individual taxpayers and the new wave of citizen journalists must be let in to conduct their own scrutiny. We are localising audit and scrapping protection, while ensuring that there is protection against the bad old days of municipal corruption. In short, the Bill will deliver greater openness, stronger local democracy, accountability and significant savings for the taxpayer. I commend it to the House.”

My comments on what Eric Pickles said are that currently the public (and press) already have the right to film, blog and tweet at Wirral Council meetings already which is granted to them by article 10 (freedom of expression) of the Human Rights Act 1998 c.42. It is unlawful for any council to act in a way that is incompatible with article 10 (freedom of expression) due to section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

The legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher referred to by the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP is the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 c.67. The secondary legislation referred to by the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP is the more recent Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 (which at Wirral Council only applies to Cabinet meetings and decisions made by individual Cabinet Members).

“Many have refused, however, citing health and safety, data protection” seems to be a reference to Wirral Council, this tweet below of mine from June shows my frustration as both reasons were given in reference to a Planning Committee meeting, the same reasons (although apart from that one Planning Committee meeting not used together at the same meeting) have been given at other Wirral Council meetings in the past twelve months too. Wirral Council have never given standing orders as a reason as there isn’t anything in their current constitution (or past constitution) about it. Personally I’ve never been threatened with arrest or the police for trying to film a meeting, although in other parts of the UK people have.

Hilary Benn MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said on the issue of filming, “We will therefore support that change, and also the proposal that councils in England should allow the recording and videoing of council and committee meetings. In this day and age, big changes in technology make recording and videoing readily possible, and I cannot see the difference between sitting in a meeting, listening and writing down what is being said, or—for those who have shorthand—taking a verbatim record, and making one’s own recording.

As the Secretary of State acknowledged, a new generation of bloggers is relating to politics in a different way, which we should all warmly welcome—frankly, the more people who get to hear what their local council is doing, the better. Who knows? Perhaps this House will one day follow suit and allow those watching us to keep their own records of proceedings—indeed, I may one day be tempted to record the Secretary of State from across the Dispatch Box. I have, however, a sneaking suspicion that Brass Crosby—who, as some Members will know, was committed to the Tower of London in the 1770s for daring as Lord Mayor to release a newspaper editor who had had the audacity to report what was happening in Parliament—and indeed Thomas Hansard, after whom the Official Report is named, would both thoroughly approve of that change.”

The reason why this would only apply to councils in England is because in the other parts of the UK (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) that it’s up to the Welsh Assembly Government, Scottish Parliament or Northern Ireland Assembly to decide whether they want this sort of change. Hilary Benn is right that at the moment anyone could publish a verbatim account of Council meetings, the main difference between that and an audio recording is that an audio recording also records how something is said.

Video adds an extra element of body language though, not just of the person speaking but of the reaction of other politicians to what’s being said. Hilary Benn also went as far as to tweet about this (his tweet is below):

I welcome Hilary Benn’s tweet and Labour’s support for a change in the law to make things clearer to local councils. I have seen in the past Labour councillors criticise during a Council meeting one of the opposition councillor groups for taking a different policy position to that of their party nationally. I hope Wirral Labour councillors will take heed of the tweet of their frontbench spokesperson Hilary Benn on the matter.

The next stage in the Local Audit and Accountability Bill’s progress through the House of Commons is the Committee stage which was on November 4th at 4pm in Committee Room 13 at the Palace of Westminster (ironically for a bill with accountability in the title this stage is being held in private not public). I’m sure myself and many other bloggers in England will be keen to follow this bill and await the text of the amendments to the Local Audit and Accountability Bill in relation to filming with interest.

The tweet of Labour’s spokesperson nationally on this issue will hopefully prevent any attempts by Wirral Labour councillors at censorship of filming of Wirral Council meetings between now and when the bill becomes law, as if they do try to stop filming they will lay themselves open to the criticism they make of others in saying one thing nationally, but doing another at the local level.

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Responses

  1. I don’t see any problem with filming, bloging or tweeting of the meetings, what have they go to hide? I enjoy watching your films that you do and keep people like myself who sometimes cant get to meetings a chance to see what is going on.

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    • Thanks for writing that you enjoy watching the videos of Wirral Council meetings. If you (or anybody else) wants to know when new videos are uploaded and are not already subscribed you can subscribe to the Youtube channel.

      As to the question, “What have they got to hide?” below this comment is a clip I recorded at the special meeting of the Health and Wellbeing Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting of the 6th February 2012 to discuss the Anna Klonowski Associates Limited report. Apologies for the black boxes either side, at the time I was recording with an iPad and didn’t know which way round it should be when recording! Councillors at the time weren’t aware they were being recorded and it shows how meetings used to often be before I started routinely recorded the ones I’m at.

      In the days after that was recorded, the Chair of that committee buttonholed me at the Town Hall insisting I had no right to record and wanting an apology. I stood my ground. Someone then got in touch with Youtube asserting I didn’t hold copyright to the video so the ads were pulled for it. I had written proof from Wirral Council that I did have permission to record their meetings and once Google (who now own Youtube) read it, they reversed their decision. The video was around the time embedded into a Wirralleaks post (please note although some people think I run the Wirralleaks blog I don’t) and as it has received three hundred and seventy views at the time of writing is probably a good example of the Streisand effect in action on the internet.

      Before filming, politicians could put a spin on what they were doing at the Town Hall to their party members. Although official minutes of meetings were published, these often used to not be published until many weeks or even months after the meeting itself. The public rarely turned up to meetings in large numbers (except for Planning Committee meetings).

      After filming of public meetings, their own party members can see what happened and hold their politicians to account better for what they’re doing (or if they’re exceptionally bad at being a politician make sure that they’re not reselected as a councillor). It also leads to greater public understanding of Wirral Council and better informed voters. So personally I think filming is a good thing, but I would say that wouldn’t I?

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      • Bravo Bravo John. The recording herein of course demonstrated how even 19 months later Cllr Mounteney STILL has not any satisfaction.

        We should return to the 17th century where thinkers had a positive distrust of, and held as anathema, any kind of veiling of the truth or rhetoric. Indeed in Harvard a prominent clergyman was prosecuted for demagoguery. Cllr Glasman asking for no personal abuse just was so inadequate a response. Silence would have been an abstention rather which one could respect, intimating that she could not furnish an answer and indeed regretted her hands were tied by party affiliations.

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        • An example of what you refer to can be found in my recent FOI request for the minutes of the Chief Executive’s Strategy Group meetings of the 5th June 2013 and the 30th August 2013.

          First they completely ignore the request (perhaps in the hope I’ll forget about it). Then when I request an internal review they refuse it on the basis that disclosure would, or be likely to inhibit “the free and frank exchange of views for the purpose of deliberation” (exemption 36).

          They go on to say that the Chief Executive Strategy Group’s meetings need to be kept “confidential”, as “as the subject matters under consideration and the nature of discussions at CESG meetings could give rise to unnecessary speculation” and that this would “which would interfere with the Council’s ability to function properly” and that “disclosure would make it less likely that individuals would participate in giving their free and frank exchange of views; if they knew such views would be made available to a member of the public”.

          Only two persons at Wirral Council are authorised to be the qualified person for the purposes of a s.36 exemption, the Monitoring Officer (Surjit Tour) and the Chief Executive (Graham Burgess). The missive of apologies for being so secretive is ended with “Pp Surjit Tour”, however as the law doesn’t allow a “qualified person” to delegate their responsibilities to someone else how is this possible (or do I just add this to the long list of unanswered questions)?

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      • just goes to show what they get up to. Next time Im at a meeting and I see you I will have a chat with you, if I miss you give me a nudge i have a memory like a fish at times.

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        • Hi, just look for the tripod and red camera, I’ll be sitting behind it.

          If I don’t recognise who you are please say as people don’t always look like exactly like their photo.

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  2. Here’s something they’ve got to hide ~ and it’s at the core of democracy. Voters should be able to get a handle on how their councillor is not just performing, but VOTING….

    Currently…we DON’T know how they vote, unless we turn up to watch.

    At the moment, councillors vote by putting their hands up, but the details of who voted for what are not recorded unless one of them stands to register a ‘card vote’. This then needs to be endorsed by 5 councillors. So it’s highly unlikely that the information is fed back to the public.

    These machinations have become abusive Wirral Council’s take on “transparency”. And true to form, the interests of those wanting to operate in the shadows wins through again…. while the public desire for openness crashes onto the rocks, and is sacrificed.

    Good on you John for all your efforts. And those of Mr Ryan. If citizen journalists can film meetings AND register WHO voted for WHAT, it’s a MASSIVE gain and a massive step forward.

    We can have these people forced to do what we voted them in for and then dump the lazy, manipulative, dishonest, incompetent, scheming and scurrilous ones amongst them on the strength of it.

    There’s some more detail on how the council records, or to be more precise, DOESN’T record votes, here:

    http://wirralinittogether.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/how-much-of-the-1-million-plus-pay-off-money-did-wirrals-council-leader-sanction/

    Like

    • Thanks for your comments Paul. You’re right that voting (98% of the time) is just done by a show of hands. At Council meetings as you point out if a certain number of councillors stand up and request a card vote they individually read out councillors names and ask them which way they’re voting. The new constitution requires six councillors for this to happen though, not five.

      Even if you do turn up to watch the meeting, votes can happen quickly and I know at last week’s Planning Committee meeting some votes happened so quickly it was impossible to jot down exactly who voted which way (especially when it wasn’t along party lines as most votes usually are).

      Outside of Council meetings, individual councillors can request that their individual votes are recorded in the minutes of the meeting (I seem to remember at one point a councillor stated there was legislation to that effect). So a councillor that wants their vote to be made public can request it’s recorded in the minutes.

      Obviously if I’m recording the meeting at least some of the councillor’s votes will be recorded on tape. The House of Commons deals with it differently though, if there’s a division MPs have to get up and go one of two different ways (depending on how they’re voting) and then their votes are all automatically recorded in Hansard.

      As to Wirral Council’s take on transparency, I notice pretty much my last half dozen FOI requests have either been refused or I’ve been given links to pages on their website that don’t answer the request. I realise they can’t refuse requests because of who is requesting, but considering the comment published on your blog by a senior officer stating that they feel that Wirral Council shouldn’t be unduly burdened by the information requests of a few people, I’m wondering if the desire to turn down requests is because I’m using my real name rather than a nom de plume (a conclusion you yourself came to about your requests).

      I have no problem with publishing which way councillors voted on a particular matter, however the next three meetings each have fifteen councillors on and it’s very difficult to record fifteen votes (for, against or abstention) in the time they have their hands up or down!

      This doesn’t help though with how they vote in private session. On the subject of electronic voting, the Council Chamber has buttons for each councillor to press to vote for, against or to abstain (and there used to be a big display that could be seen from the public gallery to show the result). I asked once a councillor why it wasn’t used, the councillor responded that if voting was done electronically nobody would be able to trust that the results weren’t in some way tampered with!

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  3. More food for thought here:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10423514/iPads-banned-from-Cabinet-meetings-over-surveillance-fears.html

    Like

    • Thankfully that’s not Wirral Council Cabinet meetings. However I have heard of other Councils ejecting people using tablet computers (such as iPads) that they’re using for making notes on what’s going on as they’re afraid they could be secretly recording the meeting!

      If they ever try that one on me though, I take notes on an iPad because about a year and a half ago I broke my wrist in two places, writing is still painful but I can type on an iPad ok, so if Wirral Council ever tried to eject me from a meeting for using an iPad I would quite happily sue them for disability discrimination. :)

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  4. […] this is what Labour’s front bench spokesperson, Hilary Benn MP had to say when the issue was debated last y… “We will therefore support that change, and also the proposal that councils in England should […]

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  5. […] However this is what Labour s front bench spokesperson, Hilary Benn MP had to say when the issue was debated last year in…5: […]

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