House of Lords agree to law on filming, tweeting and blogging local Council meetings
A still from a video of Wirral Council’s Pensions Committee meeting which is an example of the sort of filming that a Coalition Government Minister has promised to give the public a right in law to
The penultimate stage of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill was debated in the House of Lords and the amendment on filming, tweeting and blogging from local Council meetings was agreed. Although this (when the Local Audit and Accountability Bill becomes law) won’t place an immediate legal obligation on local Councils it does grant the Secretary of State Eric Pickles the power to bring in legislation in the form of a statutory instrument (or regulations) two months after the Bill becomes law.
A government Minister in the House of Lords, Baroness Stowell of Beeston said that they “intend to work with partners such as the Local Government Association and the National Association of Local Councils on the detail of the regulations”. She also said that “we will carry out a process of consultation on these regulations and ensure that we take account of the points that have been made. We will not lay the regulations until we have completed that consultation. However, we are talking about a matter of months in terms of bringing those regulations forward. We do not want delay on this.” In addition to a promise of new regulations she stated that “alongside the regulations, we intend to produce guidance to cover such matters.”
As the issue of filming local Council meetings is of interest to a number of bloggers (and others) I include the Hansard transcript of the debate below. This information contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v1.0. For ease of reading I have edited out the column references to Hansard which are 21st January 2014 columns 632 to 640 and created links for the legislation referred to.
Motion on Amendment 26
Moved by Baroness Stowell of Beeston
That this House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment 26.
26: After Clause 38, insert the following new Clause—
"Access to local government meetings and documents
(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for and in connection with allowing persons—
(a) to film, photograph or make sound recordings of proceedings at a meeting of a body to which this section applies, or of a committee or sub-committee of such a body;
(b) to use other means for enabling persons not present at such a meeting to see or hear proceedings at the meeting, as it takes place or later;
(c) to report or provide commentary on the proceedings at such a meeting, orally or in writing, so that the report or commentary is available, as the meeting takes place or later, to persons not present at the meeting.
(2) Regulations under subsection (1) may in particular make provision—
(a) for allowing persons to make available to the public or a section of the public using any medium (including the internet) things produced as a result of activities within that subsection;
(b) about the facilities to be made available by bodies to which the regulations apply to enable persons to carry on such activities;
(c) about the steps to be taken by persons before carrying on such activities;
(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.
(3) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision—
(a) for requiring written records to be kept of decisions that are of a kind specified in the regulations and are taken by an officer of a body to which this section applies,
(b) with respect to the information that is to be included in those written records (including information as to the reasons for any decision);
(c) for requiring any such written records, or any documents connected with the decisions to which they relate, to be supplied or made available to members of the body, to the public or to other persons;
(d) for the creation of offences in respect of any rights or requirements conferred or imposed by the regulations.
(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations provide that any of the following may or must be given or made available by electronic means—
(a) any notice which is required by the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960, Part 5A of the Local Government Act 1972 (access to meetings and documents of certain authorities etc) or regulations under this section to be given by a body to which this section applies;
(b) any document relating to such a body which is required by that Part or those regulations to be open to inspection.
(5) Regulations under this section may, in particular, amend or repeal any provision of—
(6) Subject to subsections (7) and (8), this section applies to—
(a) a district council,
(b) a county council in England,
(c) a London borough council,
(d) the London Assembly,
(e) the Common Council of the City of London in its capacity as a local authority or police authority,
(f) the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority,
(g) Transport for London,
(h) a joint authority established under Part 4 of the Local Government Act 1985,
(i) an economic prosperity board,
(j) a combined authority,
(k) a fire and rescue authority in England constituted by a scheme under section 2 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 or a scheme to which section 4 of that Act applies,
(l) a National Park Authority for a National Park in England, (m) the Broads Authority,
(n) the Council of the Isles of Scilly,
(o) a parish council, and
(p) a parish meeting.
(7) In its application to subsection (1), subsection (6) is to be read as if it included a reference to an executive of an authority within paragraph (a), (b) or (c) of that subsection.
(8) In its application to subsection (3), subsection (6) is to be read as if the reference in paragraph (d) to the London Assembly were to the Greater London Authority.
(9) References in this section to a committee or sub-committee of a body include any committee or sub-committee of that body to which Part 5A of the Local Government Act 1972 applies or is treated as applying.
(10) References in this section to Part 5A of the Local Government Act 1972 include a reference to that Part as it applies to the London Assembly by virtue of section 58 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999.
(11) In paragraph 4(2) of Schedule 12 to the Local Government Act 1972 (notice of meeting of principal council), for "Three clear days" substitute "Five clear days"."
Baroness Stowell of Beeston: My Lords, in moving the Motion on Amendment 26, I shall speak also to the other amendments in this group.
Noble Lords will be aware that these are new provisions. These amendments insert a new clause into the Bill that would give greater rights to report at local government meetings and to have access to documents. We believe that this is an important extension to reflect greater enthusiasm and appetite among the public not just for transparency but also to have an element of control over the information and the access that they enjoy which allows them to continue discussion and debate beyond being just observers at meetings.
Commons Amendment 26 gives the Secretary of State the power to make regulations that would allow members of the public to report proceedings at public meetings, allowing people to film, audio-record, tweet and blog at a meeting of a local government body. This will allow those who are unable to attend the meeting to follow the proceedings and, as I have just said, perhaps promote discussion about proceedings thereafter. It will also give the public access to documents of local government bodies. These documents may, for instance, include records of decisions taken by officers acting under delegated powers; the reasons for the decisions, details of any alternative options considered and rejected, and any other documents connected with the decisions to which they relate.
The regulations may set out possible conditions to be met before such activities can be carried out. Likewise, they may specify the circumstances where activities such as filming or audio recording might not be permitted. The Government intend to work with partners such as the Local Government Association and the National Association of Local Councils on the detail of the regulations. They will be subject to the affirmative procedure if there is provision in the regulations amending or repealing primary legislation; otherwise the regulations will be subject to the negative procedure.
Local people are currently enjoying more rights under the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 when they attend meetings of a council’s executive and access information relating to decisions made in those meetings. Unfortunately, these same people cannot enjoy the same rights when they attend the public meetings of full council, its committees, sub-committees and joint committees, parish and town councils and other local government bodies. Some councils have used this inconsistent approach to refuse the public access. We are aware of some recent examples of councils ejecting members of the public from meetings for filming or tweeting from those meetings. That is why we have decided to bring forward these amendments now.
Since the 2012 regulations came into force, we are not aware that they have caused any particular problem for local authorities, other than some needing to update their standing orders to reflect the change in access rights by the press and public. We do not believe that this greater access should create additional burdens. However, I am aware that some may be concerned about the possible disruption that filming in council meetings might cause. Therefore, we will consider possible steps that have to be taken by people attending the meeting for the purpose of reporting the proceedings so that activities such as filming or taking photographs might not disturb the good order and conduct of a meeting. As I say, we intend to work with partners to ensure that the regulations and any guidance address this.
We are in a digital age where technology has significantly evolved and we need to acknowledge that it will continue to advance swiftly. With this in mind, we must widely embrace the use of modern communication methods such as filming, tweeting and blogging at public meetings. On top of this, opening up these bodies would help the public to have a better understanding of their local decision-making process and, as I said, potentially encourage them to be more involved in local affairs. I beg to move.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I expect we all welcome the intentions of the amendments: I certainly do. I must confess that my first response when I read about this was a little surprise that they were considered necessary. I am sure the vast majority of authorities of all persuasions are already doing this. It may well be that, in some cases, their standing orders have not been brought up to date, but I am sure that most are doing it very willingly. However, I then reflected on my early days as a councillor, quite a long time ago, when all council and committee meetings were open to the public, as required — if I remember rightly — by a Private Member’s Bill introduced by the then new and young honourable Member for Finchley, Mrs Thatcher. The one committee not open to the public was what was then called the planning committee; it would now probably be the development control committee. This was, arguably, the committee of greatest interest to members of the public but it was the one to which they were not allowed access.
Those days are, fortunately, long gone but it reminded me that we need to ensure we keep up to date with the times. I am sure all noble Lords welcome the good intentions of these amendments. The key will be in the drafting of the regulations. I am not sure why any local authority or council would wish to stop someone tweeting during a meeting or, if they did, how they could implement it without the most draconian measures. That is well and good, but the difficult part will be making regulations that require the greatest openness but do not allow the avoidable disruption of meetings.
I hesitate a little, because a fundamental part of our democracy is the right to be irritating and to annoy. I think the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, is suggesting that I am doing this at the moment. We all know from our local authority experience that there are some people whom everyone agrees are simply a nuisance. It will be quite tricky to balance the regulations to ensure that the person—it is usually an individual rather than a collection — has a right to be a nuisance and be irritating but does not disrupt the good order and procedure of the meeting. I imagine that the decision will be in the hands of whoever is chairing the meeting. They have the right now to have disruptive people ejected, as happens occasionally, and this will, no doubt, still be the case. However it will be quite difficult to draw the balance between allowing the maximum openness and transparency at meetings, which we would all endorse, with not allowing individuals — I stress, individuals — with a cause from unnecessarily and avoidably disrupting proceedings.
We look forward with interest to seeing the regulations. I am delighted that the Minister has made clear that there will be wide consultation with the local government associations, NALC and other bodies in the drawing up of these. We look forward to seeing the result.
The Earl of Lytton: My Lords, I relate to what the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has just said. I have a mental image of the small parish or town council, with its quite limited premises, taking on progressively more functions and finding itself in the centre of some awfully controversial measure. The premises might, quite literally, be crowded out by people with cameras or wanting to record: the sort of thing one sees on television outside the courts of justice when a person of fame—or infamy, as the case may be—has received a decision. The scrum that goes on out there is the sort of thing that slightly worries me, particularly, for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, with development control, which in many instances is highly contentious.
I will not ask the Minister for an answer at this juncture, but could she bear in mind that uniformity of regulations across the whole of local government might be difficult to achieve, for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Tope? There is also a question of how open-ended this public right is. There will clearly be instances — I am sure we have all witnessed meetings of this sort — where it can be thoroughly disruptive and an impediment to the sober and conscientious consideration of matters on the agenda. Perhaps there must be some limitations. Like the noble Lord, Lord Tope, I look forward to seeing the draft regulations in due course. I appreciate what the Minister has said about the process for that: would she perhaps clarify the timescale for it? That would be very helpful, particularly for parish and town councils, a bigger proportion of which may be affected by this measure than principal authorities which, in many cases, already have generous facilities for public access and the recording of proceedings.
Lord Beecham (Lab): My Lords, I occasionally encounter some unfortunate being who has apparently had nothing better to do than watch me on Parliament TV. It is possible that others of your Lordships may have had similar encounters. Oddly enough, although Newcastle City Council — on which both I and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, have served — has webcast its meetings for many years, nobody has ever claimed to have seen me on those broadcasts. Perhaps that says something about the medium not quite having conveyed the message thus far.
I join my honourable friends in the House of Commons in welcoming these changes. It is fair to say, and was said by the Minister in the debate on this provision in the Commons, that the Opposition Front Bench there were very supportive of the concept. It is welcome that these proposals come here and, as the Minister pointed out, that they include the potential for safeguards. I presume that these will, as she has implied, be negotiated, or at least discussed, with the Local Government Association so as to avoid conduct which might disrupt meetings and to provide clarity about what happens when, for legitimate reasons, the press and public may be excluded. Examples might be if there are matters of commercial confidentiality or confidential personal details to be discussed in certain areas. I might like to suggest, though it may not reach into regulations, that selfies might be prohibited, but that is a matter of taste rather than democracy.
It would also be helpful if, alongside any regulations, the Government gave some information, in guidelines or otherwise, about the risks that may be attendant on people filming, tweeting or otherwise relaying actual events. Although one hopes it would not happen, what is said in council may sometimes stray into the area of defamation and those relaying matters of that sort could find themselves in a difficult situation. Some guidance about the need to be careful would help those who might otherwise run into difficulties. It is not likely to arise in a large number of cases but it is conceivable it might happen. Broadcasting authorities and so on are very alert to that danger. In Parliament it is privilege but that does not apply to local authorities.
I also wonder, although it is not a matter for the Minister or the Department for Communities and Local Government, whether the principle embodied in these amendments, which will eventually be subject to guidelines, might not be extended to some other public bodies. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, referred to health and well-being boards. It is true that they are technically part of local authorities, but health is generally a matter that clearly engages the interest of a community. Many bodies such as clinical commissioning groups, health trusts and so on are open to the public. A similar regime might be useful there, and perhaps the noble Baroness can take back to ministerial colleagues the thought that this principle — after it has run for a period and people can see how it works — may usefully be extended.
I find some irony in the Government’s general position on this issue. They talk about democracy when, at the same time, they are not only imposing a council tax cap on local authorities which can be exceeded only if there is a referendum, they are also intending to impose a lower cap than would otherwise be the case because some authorities have levied just under the prescribed level for a referendum. The Government seem to be taking an absurd position. Indeed, at least part of the coalition appears increasingly to favour referendums over elections. In this House we will be debating at some length the proposals regarding European referendums. This process was started by Louis Napoleon in the 19th century and has since been extended to various other unsatisfactory regimes.
However, the current proposals are regarded as potentially helping to revive interest in the established local democratic process. That is necessary given—as many of us have remarked during the debates on the Bill—the almost total lack of coverage of local affairs not just by the printed press but by the media generally compared with what used to be the case. If that lack of coverage means that people are unable to read such coverage in their local paper or see it on the local broadcasting media then it would be useful if this information could be disseminated from meetings. I hope that people will take advantage of that opportunity as it can only be for the good of local democracy. We support the amendments.
Baroness Stowell of Beeston: I am grateful to the noble Lord for his and the Opposition’s support for these amendments. I am also grateful to have been reminded by my noble friend Lord Tope that I am following in the proud tradition of my late and noble friend Lady Thatcher in terms of increasing access to public meetings.
As my noble friend Lord Tope pointed out, many local authorities now provide the kind of access and opportunity to local people in the way that we are seeking to require through these measures. He is right, there is extensive use and availability in this area. However, some local authorities are not providing that kind of access. As we think that that is important and the precedent is there in other kinds of public meetings, it is only right to extend such provisions. For example, I am told that Tower Hamlets Council barred a 71 year old resident from filming because it claimed a risk of reputational damage to the authority. Keighley Town Council blocked some residents from filming as it would have amounted to a breach of standing orders. Stamford Town Council placed a ban on journalists tweeting from meetings due to the risk that the journalists would not accurately portray the debate. So there are examples and evidence of inconsistency in approach and we want to address that.
Noble Lords raised important points about risks, and the measures necessary to mitigate those risks, to ensure that proper conduct is able to continue. I re-emphasise that we will carry out a process of consultation on these regulations and ensure that we take account of the points that have been made. We will not lay the regulations until we have completed that consultation. However, we are talking about a matter of months in terms of bringing those regulations forward. We do not want delay on this.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, specifically raised concerns about whether guidance will be issued on matters such as defamation in order that members of the public do not inadvertently put themselves at risk. Alongside the regulations, we intend to produce guidance to cover such matters. As the noble Lord will know, there is some precedent in this area because journalists are now allowed to “live tweet” from some public court proceedings.
The noble Lord specifically asked whether this provision may be extended to other public bodies such as health bodies. I will take his point away and raise it with colleagues. We believe that if a public meeting provides access to the public we should ensure that they have the ability to record it appropriately, in the way that I have described.
That leads me to another point that my noble friend Lord Tope and others mentioned regarding the ability to maintain sensitivity and confidentiality during public meetings. Councils and other government bodies will still be able to exclude the public from the part of a meeting in which confidential or exempt sensitive information will be disclosed. The definition of confidential and exempt information is already covered in legislation. There are legislative rules that must be followed when excluding the public from a meeting. For instance, a resolution may be passed to exclude the public from a meeting at which exempt information would be disclosed. Again, measures are already there to inform on how we propose to operate in this area.
I think that I have covered all the points that have been raised. I re-emphasise that we will bring forward regulations and ensure that we consult. I am very much aware of the kind of concerns that have been raised by noble Lords and will ensure that proper account is taken of these issues when the regulations are drafted.
Motion on Amendment 26 agreed.
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