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Posted by: John Brace | 23rd December 2013

Blogger calls for Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP to consult public and press on local Council filming law

Blogger calls for Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP to consult public and press on local Council filming law

                          

Jenmaleo,
134 Boundary Road,
Bidston,
Wirral
CH43 7PH

Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP
Department for Communities and Local Government,
Eland House,
Bressenden Place,
London,
SW1E 5DU
eric.pickles@communities.gsi.gov.uk

23rd December 2013

Dear Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP,

As it is standard protocol to write to one’s own MP if one wants a reply from a Minister, I am also emailing a copy of this letter to my MP (the Rt Hon Frank Field MP). I am also publishing it on my blog and would be happy to publish any replies I receive to this letter.

In June 2013 your department published a press release titled Lights, camera, democracy in action that referred to problems I had earlier this year filming a meeting of Wirral Council’s Pensions Committee where the reason of “health and safety” was given. Your press release also referred to the Health and Safety Executive’s Myth Busters Challenge Panel’s view that the Council was “clearly hiding behind ‘health and safety’ as a convenient excuse rather than giving the real reasons for its concerns about full openness and transparency.”

In October you issued a further press release stating that a new law will give the press and public new rights to film and report council meetings (making specific reference to the Local Audit and Accountability Bill).

Since then a new clause was added to the Local Audit and Accountability Bill called “Access to local government meetings and documents“.

Once the Local Audit and Accountability Bill becomes law, this section will come into force two months later. However this section does not immediately (as was implied in your October press release) “confer new rights to film and report council meetings” as the only power it grants is to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (currently yourself) to come up with further secondary legislation on this issue.

I quote from what was said on the 21st November 2013 when this section was discussed at the Public Bill Committee stage by Brandon Lewis MP (the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government),

“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”, later he also said,

“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.”

In reference to the future regulations he said,”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.” and also “the Government intend to work with the LGA and the National Association of Local Councils to cover the detail of the regulations.”

I am concerned that as the government has only stated they will consult with the Local Government Association and the National Association of Local Councils on the detail of the regulations, that these two bodies will have the opportunity to comment on and suggest amendments to the regulations, when there is no commitment from the government that the people these regulations will affect (such as myself) who are currently filming local government meetings are to be consulted when the regulations are in draft form.

There are those who currently film local government meetings, bloggers who use clips of local government meetings in what they write, other members of the press, the public and other bodies (such as the National Union of Journalists) that may wish to comment on the detail of any draft regulations. Unlike primary legislation when members of the public can make submissions about proposed laws at the Public Bill Committee stage, I am not aware of any similar stage to secondary legislation (also referred to as regulations).

Three aspects worry me as to what could be in the regulations (especially as you have only committed to consult bodies representing local government views). I would appreciate the courtesy of a detailed response to these concerns. These concerning sections are in s.40 of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill.

“(2)Regulations under subsection (1) may in particular make provision—

(c)about the steps to be taken by persons before carrying on such activities;”

I presume this is about informing the body being filming before filming. However if filming is a “right”, why should someone have to tell a body before exercising that right?

My experience of having the courtesy to tell my local Council before filming was that every time I did so they made a concerted effort to prevent me filming. Requiring those filming to tell the body in advance could also give the impression that the body has a non-existent legal power to prevent being filmed. I am against any regulations about there being any prior steps to be followed in advance of filming.

“(2)Regulations under subsection (1) may in particular make provision—

(d) about the circumstances in which persons may not carry on such activities, including for enabling a person specified in the regulations to prevent them from doing so in the circumstances specified in the regulations.”

Apart from preventing filming during a part of the meeting where the press and public have been previously excluded I cannot think of any other circumstances in which this would be necessary or desirable (if the aim of these regulations is greater openness and transparency)? If regulations give local Councils any discretionary power to prevent filming (that they currently don’t have) when the meeting is open to the public my concern would be that that would be seen as a regulation that was incompatible with the Article 10 rights to freedom of expression of those wanting to film.

“(3)The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision—


(d) for the creation of offences in respect of any rights or requirements conferred or imposed by the regulations.”

It is unclear about which rights or requirements this is would cover. Clearly if your intention is to extend the provisions of the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 then the offences would be if people block or prevent people from exercising their rights under the regulations.

I would like a reassurance that the creation of offences does not include offences covering people exercising their right to film public bodies. Clearly if the regulations include a discretionary power (see 2(d) above) that the body can exercise to prevent filming, this could create an impasse where the body asks them to stop but they believe they have a right to film and refuse to do so.

Bearing in mind all the above, I would either like reassurance (individually on the above points) that my fears about what will be in the regulations and possible new powers granted to public bodies are either unfounded, or for the government to agree to a wider, public consultation on the principles behind the proposed regulations so that before proposing the regulations that you (and your officials) receive a balance of views on this matter rather than just the viewpoints of two bodies that solely represent local government interests on the draft regulations.

It is important that the press can easily hold local democracy in this country to account. I would not want to see either regulations that either make holding public bodies to account by the press unduly burdensome on those attempting to do so, or for public bodies to be granted new powers preventing their public meetings being recorded and the public knowing what they’re doing with their taxes.

I look forward to reading your response to this letter with interest (as I’m sure will my readers).

Yours sincerely,

John Brace

First response received 23rd December via email at 13:48.

from: EEMA_EPICKLES
to: john.brace@gmail.com
date: 23 December 2013 13:48
subject: Thank you for your email to the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP

Thank you for your email to the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, the Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Our aim is to consider the issues you raise and to respond within 15 working days.

If we feel that the issues raised do not fall within the Department’s responsibilities, we will try to transfer your email to the relevant government department and ask that they reply to you directly.

DCLG Contact Us Team.

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Responses

  1. YEs and Yes and Yes

    Local councillors and local government officers cannot be discussing matters secretly. With words being wasted into the ether the ability to recover them from your digital archive is impressive and prevents those in authority saying one thing and doing another , at least without being held to account.

    • You’re not implying that having a video record of meetings makes it difficult for councillors or officers to tell untruths during meetings because they’ll get found out are you?

      Yes, the whole point of it being a legal requirement that meetings are held in public is greater openness and transparency, however it would be a full-time job for many (as it is in the Houses of Parliament) to provide a written record of all that is said at all public meetings at Wirral Council. That is why film is much better.

      The only public meetings that are well attended by the public at Wirral Council (on a regular rather than sporadic basis) are Planning Committee meetings.

      As there are only so many hours in the day I can do this sort of thing, in my blog I only have the time to write about and comment on things that are of wider interest to groups of members of the public than every little decision Wirral Council makes.

      There are of course decisions made under delegated powers by individual Cabinet Members which can’t be filmed therefore aren’t in the “digital archive”. For example this one published today, a decision of the Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care to award ~£2 million (£1 million a year over two years) of contracts in the New Adult Early Intervention and Prevention Service area.

      I think one of the downsides to filming is that it may encourage decisions to be taken in this way with despite the requirements of the regulations, less openness and transparency than it being discussed and decided at a public meeting of the Cabinet.

  2. […] up on my earlier blog post calling for consultation with those actually doing filming of local government meetings on new regul…, I’ve received a response from one of the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP’s spads (special […]


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