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Posted by: John Brace | 22nd November 2013

Cross party support for new legislation on filming Council meetings (in England)

Cross party support for new legislation on filming Council meetings (in England)

                               

The Local Audit and Accountability Bill progresses through the House of Commons. The Local Audit and Accountability Bill Committee on Thursday 21st November 2013 discussed the new clause to be added to the bill about filming of local Council meetings. New clause 4 is a new clause added to the bill about filming. As there’s quite a bit of interest, both on the Wirral and further afield about this issue, I’m including below (from Parliament’s website) what was said on this issue.

Once the Local Audit and Accountability Bill becomes law, the provisions on filming in it will require a further statutory instrument to be agreed before they become a legal requirement on local Councils (which hopefully will also repeal some of the legislation that’s been used to prevent filming too).

Below is the text of what was said in the Local Audit and Accountability Bill Committee on the 21st November. The text below contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v1.0.

The Chair:

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment 134.

Government new clause 4—Access to local government meetings and documents.

Government amendment 135.

Brandon Lewis:

The amendments give greater rights to the public to access or report on local government meetings and documents. Before I talk about the details, I want to thank the hon. Member for Corby and his colleague, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), for supporting the instructions to the Committee to allow us to widen the scope of the Bill in order to debate the amendments. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the amendments. I appreciate our conversations outside the Committee.

New clause 4 gives the Secretary of State the power to make regulations about the public’s access to the meetings and documents of local government bodies. Transparency and openness can be achieved only when people, including citizens and professional journalists, have adequate rights to attend their local government bodies’ meetings. Public meetings of local government bodies should be fully accessible to those who cannot attend in person, so that the public can hold those bodies to account.

We are introducing this measure because openness is an issue that fundamentally affects the lives of communities. We have already introduced greater transparency and openness to the meetings of the council’s executive, its committees and sub-committees through the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012.

Although the regulations give local people more rights to attend meetings of the council’s executive and to access information relating to decisions made in those meetings, the same rights do not extend to the meetings of full council, its committees, sub-committees and joint committees, parish and town councils, and other local government bodies. On top of this, in recent months, there have been some disgraceful incidents when members of the public have been ejected from meetings simply for trying to film them.

For example, a council we have all talked about a great deal in the past couple of weeks, Tower Hamlets, barred a 71-year-old resident from filming owing to the risk of

“reputation damage to the authority”.

Keighley town council blocked residents from filming, because it would have been a

“breach of standing orders”.

Stamford town council banned journalists from tweeting at meetings owing to the risk of their

“not accurately portraying a debate.”

If we were all banned from tweeting across the Chamber, life would be somewhat less interesting, as we saw yesterday.

When I was a council leader in 2005, I introduced the webcasting of all meetings, and we noticed how the community can really benefit. On a cold winter’s night, if a member of the public is interested in a particular part of what can be a very long council meeting and they do not necessarily know which issues will take longest, instead of having to come along and sit through one hour to five hours of a meeting for an issue that could be at the back end of it, the member of the public can sit at home and watch it at their leisure. Also, in our system, they can send questions and messages if they wish. It opens up democracy to the public in a more accessible way in the modern world.

We now live in a digital world where the use of modern communication methods, such as filming, tweeting and blogging are widely embraced. There is no reason why such communication methods should not be welcomed, particularly for enhancing the openness of local government bodies.

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab):

Will the Minister outline whether any codes of practice should be adopted? The measure could be used in an unhelpful way. I support the notion of people being allowed to record and film in council meetings. Indeed, when I was leader of Derby city council, I set up the webcasting of our council meetings. It is important to have greater access, but will we have a code of practice to prevent abuse taking place?

Brandon Lewis:

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. It is good that, as we saw on Second Reading, there is agreement throughout the House on the importance of transparency and how it can be beneficial. It is fair to say that people should not be able to disrupt meetings. At the same time, however, we must get the balance right, as the regulations will, and we shall talk to the LGA about that. We must make sure that an authority does not use disruption as an excuse to stop people filming a meeting in a non-disruptive sense.

I was shown an example on YouTube. A council somehow managed to “lose” the recording of a council meeting that was webcast on the internet. The council had the embarrassing situation that the chairman of a panel did not like what was going on and decided to leave. However, he had not actually ended the meeting, so somebody else took the chair and carried on. Amazingly, that disappeared from the webcast, but somebody videoed the meeting on their own camera, and they put it on YouTube. Nothing particularly exciting was going on, but the point is that if members of the public are allowed to film—I am not sure anybody knew this person was filming at the time—we can make sure that transparency survives.

I do take the hon. Gentleman’s points on board. That is why we will liaise with partners to make sure that the regulations are correct. We want to make sure that meetings are not disrupted, but, equally, that disruption cannot be used as an excuse to block fair and proper transparency. It is the inconsistent and unjustifiable excuses that councils occasionally use to refuse public access that we want the clause to address. Our intention is to make regulations that require local government bodies, including their committees, sub-committees and joint committees, to allow people to film, photograph, tweet and blog at their public meetings.

The regulations may also specify that any persons attending a meeting for the purpose of reporting the proceedings should inform the relevant body of their intention before filming or photographing—the important word there is “inform”. They may also specify that government bodies may reasonably ask for the filming or photographing to be done in such a way that they are not disruptive to the good order and conduct of the meeting.

Allowing local people to attend and report on meetings of local government bodies will help them to understand the local decision-making process and empower them to be involved in making decisions that affect our lives.

Amendment 130 requires the regulations to be subject to the affirmative procedure when amending primary legislation. That will give both Houses of Parliament the opportunity to debate the regulations before approving them through resolution. Where they amend secondary legislation, the negative procedure will be used.

Amendment 134 specifies that the power to make regulations will come into force two months after the Bill has been passed, as is the usual practice. As I said, the Government intend to work with the LGA and the National Association of Local Councils to cover the detail of the regulations.

Amendment 135 simply updates the Bill’s long title to reflect the inclusion of new clause 4.

Andy Sawford:

We support the clause. We were pleased to support the Government’s extending the scope of the Bill and introducing these provisions.

I read the 1988 debate about televising the House of Commons, and I noted Members’ sincerely held concerns that it could fundamentally change the character of the House of Commons and the way in which debates took place, and concerns that those changes to the way our Parliament functioned could harm our democracy. What Member of the House of Commons today would argue against televising the House of Commons?

Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con):

There are some. [Laughter.]

Andy Sawford:

One Member says there may be some, but I think there would be near-unanimity in the House of Commons that filming is the right thing for our democracy and that it is right for the public to see what we get up to. Even if we do not always give the best account of ourselves in the public’s eye, they can at least see the debates that take place, including in Select Committees and other forums around Parliament.

I have a confession to make, although I hope it will not come as a surprise to this particular group of hon. Members, with their experience of local government—many of them have been local councillors. I have availed myself of the webcasting my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North and the Minister introduced in their local authorities. During my research as a member of the Local Government Information Unit I did that to look at debates in not only my own local authority, but other local authorities around the country. Although I recognise that the viewership of local council webcasts is often quite small, the fact that they are there and that the public can see what is happening in their local council chamber is a source of strength for our system of local democracy and local government around the country. We should note, however, as I did when I was reading the 1988 debate, that there was some difference of view between longer-serving Members of the House of Commons at that time and a newer generation of Members who had more recently entered Parliament. The same could be said of councils around the country, and I note that two of the smaller parish councils were highlighted by the Minister as recent examples of where there had been a problem. We are aware that diversity is increasing in local government, and we would all hope to encourage that, but we are also aware that the generation that is leading the world of blogging and the use of online media is not as well represented in local government as those for whom that new world may be something of a challenge to their way of operating in the local council chamber.

In communicating that to local authorities around the country—I am sure that the Minister will agree with this sentiment—I hope that we would not, in any way, try to beat local councils over the head for not having already embraced the change, but rather that we would communicate with them persuasively about why this is a good thing in their local chambers, and why they should move quickly to ensure that they fully comply with the clause as it is introduced.

I want to add something to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North made, and I thought the Minister’s response was welcome. We all want to ensure that the risk of disruption is minimised. For example, concerns have been put to me that a member of the public, because of their view about one particular member of the authority, could focus all their filming on that member even though the member may not be actively speaking or participating in the debate at a given time. That, in itself, may be something that an elected member of a local council might just have to grin and bear, but there is a point about fair and appropriate conduct by members of the public when they are in the council chamber.

However, the Minister struck the right tone, as I am sure my hon. Friends would agree, in indicating that the bar would be high on disruption, and that it should not be used as an excuse by a local authority not to open up their proceedings properly. With that welcome assurance from the Minister, and in the knowledge that he will consult on and develop guidance in order to implement the provision, I welcome the clause, which enjoys the Opposition’s support.

Brandon Lewis:

I knew there would come a point in the Committee when I and the hon. Member for Derby North agreed wholeheartedly. It had to happen. We got there eventually, as I shall no doubt tweet later today.

On a more serious note, there is just one other point to make. I agree with everything that has been said, and I appreciate the support. It is important that local government and the public see that there is cross-party support for opening things up and ensuring that there is transparency, which, importantly, local government should embrace. The hon. Member for Corby is right about how we put the message across to local government. What I say to local government and put on the record is that this is not only about ensuring that there is transparency, so that the public can see what is going on and how councils spend money. As important as that is, local government should see this as a chance for great councillors around the country to show the good work that they are doing and how hard they work for their communities. Therefore, it is a positive step for them.

Amendment 130 agreed to.

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Responses

  1. The ability to speak freely, and to report and question are constitutionally protected in the US. This gives us some compelling, and very entertaining viewing, e.g. “The Daily Show”.

    Can your films be edited and used for satirical treatment here in the UK, John? This could after all be a “way in” and a means of highlighting their atrocious, abusive, and increasingly desperate, often pathetic and deluded behaviour.

    • In answer to your query Paul, currently the default licence for the videos I publish to Youtube is the standard Youtube licence which does allow videos to be embedding.

      There’s another option on Youtube for a Creative Commons attribution licence. Videos that have this licence on Youtube can be edited by other users in the way you suggest.

      When I first starting uploading videos of Wirral Council to Youtube I did make them available under the Creative Commons licence. However nobody seemed interested enough to edit them and make their own!

      I’m quite happy though to:

      (a) respond to any requests to change the licence on a particular video and
      (b) look into changing the default licence to the Creative Commons one instead of the one currently used.

      Bear in mind with the number of videos currently recorded, it would take a very long time to go back over all the footage and manually change each licence to a Creative Commons one.

      Personally I think since I started filming, the politicians and officers have behaved better. They certainly put more thought into what they say before they say it as they know it’s being recorded.

    • Just so you know, I’ve changed the default licence that future videos will use from the Standard Youtube licence to the Creative Commons one. Once the rest of last night’s Planning Committee is uploaded future videos should be able to be edited by other Youtube users (and republished) under the Creative Commons licence.

  2. These are similar to the ‘arguments’ put forward when the televising of Parliament was mooted

    • Well the televising of Parliament happened when I was just a lad, so I suppose I’m part of the generation that takes it somewhat for granted.

      The new clause 4 won’t just apply to local councils though, whatever legislation is brought in will also apply to joint authorities such as Merseytravel, the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority as well as the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.

      Currently as far as I know that Merseytravel’s standing orders prohibit filming, although they sometimes take photos at their public meetings when they’re receiving an award.

  3. I must own up, I did take a still from one of your videos without permission that struck me as interesting and used it here:

    http://wirralinittogether.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/its-all-in-the-body-language/

    Please reassure me you won’t be taking steps or instructing your legal team.

  4. John, it looks like a victory for common sense which hopefully will make this council more “Open & Transparent” if that is possible & if it wasn’t for people like you we would still be in the dark, you should be really proud of your achievement, more power to the people well done.

    • Thanks for your kind words. However I cannot really take the credit for the cross party agreement for the legislation on filming or the efforts of many other people to lobby the government to do something about it.

      There is still a campaign going on in Wales on this matter as legislation on it is a devolved matter to the Welsh Assembly.

      I would hope that at some point in the future Wirral Council would decide to either stream footage of their meetings and/or have on its website archived footage. The cost of equipment is always coming down and at least the way I do it is relatively inexpensive when compared to the costs of say live webcasting.


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