Responses to filming law; public meetings in a pub, Lord True & a “frequently intimate” Council Chamber and the LGA
Labour councillors at a public meeting of Wirral Council’s Coordinating Committee vote to consult on closing Lyndale School (27th February 2014) (an example of the sort of public meeting covered by the new regulations)
The Department of Communities and Local Government have today responded to the Freedom of Information Act request I made a month ago about consultation responses (although DCLG refers to it as a “sounding exercise” and not a consultation) about the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 (this is the proposed law about filming of public meetings) which is now in draft form but expected to move from draft form to having the force of law in the next month or two. Once it becomes law I’ll be able to film public meetings of the Combined Authority or its Merseytravel Committee without facing resistance to such requests from the bureaucracy.
Some of the responses raise interesting points. My comments centre on the filming aspects of this, however these draft regulations cover filming and some other matters.
Alton Town Council
My first thought was where’s Alton? It’s about ten miles east of Newcastle. Alton Town Council were against the requirement to allow oral commentary during public meetings (something I must admit I was against too as I had visions of filming a meeting with journalists either side talking into tape recorders and completely drowning out what was being said). This requirement has since been dropped in the version of the draft legislation laid before Parliament as many of the responses were against it.
Alton Town Council describe their opposition to such a requirement thus “One person trying to speak over another person is rarely helpful in a debate, as I’m sure members of the House of Commons are aware.” However they also state in their response “As a general principle I don’t have an issue with the idea of filming or recording meetings, or tweeting or posting comments during meetings.”
Unknown Parish Council
Unfortunately DCLG have redacted this response so I don’t know which parish council this was from. They state that they hire a room in the local public house for their meetings that “lighting is far from perfect at present and I doubt if it would be adequate for recording (filming) purposes”. They further point out that “electrical sockets are limited”.
Their response goes on to state that they have between seven and fifteen members of the public at their meetings (I wonder if this is partly because they’re held in the local pub). The last point they raise is about privacy, not about councillors or officers but of members of the public. They pose the point of if somebody objected to the filming, given the recording would not be the responsibility of or in the control of the council, what would the position be?
Personally I think the concept of privacy at a public meeting (and I’ve been to at least one recently at Wirral Council where there have been over a hundred people there at least) doesn’t really exist. You’re in a public building at a public meeting in a public place, there should be no expectation of privacy in such situations.
Transport for London
Although not on the subject of filming, Transport for London insist that compliance with the new regulations will require hiring seven to ten extra full-time employees and that they don’t have time to do this before the new regulations will come into effect. Good news though if you want a job working for Transport for London!
Lord True CBE (Leader, London Borough of Richmond upon Thames)
Lord True’s response sent on House of Lords stationery thinks that the regulations are disproportionate, intrusive and will lead to “additional unnecessary costs” for local government.
He states that at his Council they already stream live over the internet meetings of all their councillors and Planning Committee meetings and other meetings if there is “a specific expression of public interest”. However they don’t stream all meetings “in view of the costs involved”.
Lord True however is however concerned about the “need not to disrupt” (in fact so concerned that he underlines the phrase in his letter. He sees no reason why anyone should be prevented from filming, photographing (preferably without flash) or filming but is against the idea of “oral commentary” which he deems to be “unnecessary and potentially disruptive”. He describes a council chamber as being “frequently intimate” and states that their gallery is so close that you can “touch those on the front row”.
He goes on to state that construction of a “sound proof box” (which is what happened to the public gallery in the House of Commons and House of Lords since the “flour bomb” incident) would be expensive and he asks that the oral commentary requirement in the regulations be removed.
His views go on to include the rather worrying phrase that shows perhaps the rather unhealthy desire at times that politicians have to control the press “I think it is absolutely essential in the interests of democracy and fair debate that Councils are not able to obstruct access, but are able to control the way in which recording is done”. He states that filming from the public gallery would give an advantage to the councillors nearer to it, that the Council does its own filming from behind the Mayor which gives equal treatment to councillors on both sides. He goes on to state that he thinks it would be better to just have the Council filming meetings, with the recording made available to anyone who wanted it as opposed to separate recordings of the same meeting.
Lord True goes on to state that he thinks that requests to film or record should be made in advance. This seems to ignore the point that when the new regulations come into effect such a request couldn’t be turned down therefore what is the point of making it? He states “I think in the interests of fairness and good order requests to film or record should be made in advance, or at least subject to control by the Chair, on advice from the proper officer.”
His last point is that the new regulations won’t include Neighbourhood Forums and states that these bodies will have “extensive planning responsibilities”. On the Wirral this would be bodies such as Hoylake Life, Devonshire Park Residents Association and Unity in the Community. Perhaps someone who has a greater knowledge of these bodies or connection to these three could leave a comment about the filming issue, but from memory Devonshire Park Residents Association still has to have a referendum before it formally becomes a Neighbourhood Forum and I would guess that the other two are also at the early stages of development too. Lord True’s view is that these bodies should be opened up to filming in the same way that “Council planning committee now are (or will be)”.
Local Government Association
The Local Government Association also responded stating that they are “committed to the principles of transparency and openness in local government and to continuous improvement”. They state that most of the proposals in the draft regulations are already taking place in the vast majority of councils, either on a voluntary basis or in compliance with existing legislation.
They even accept that there is “room for improvement”, however refer to the regulations as “completely contrary to the principles of localism” and of being “micro-management of the sector”. The LGA states that instead of a legal requirement on all councils to comply they’d prefer government issue guidance to councils instead. The Local Government Association states that they would “welcome a meeting with you to discuss” “concerns relating to the areas covered by the draft regulations”.
The response from the Local Government Association (sent in the name of Carolyn Downs its Chief Executive) finishes by stating “Finally and separately it would be helpful to have a conversation about “soundings” as opposed to consultation.
If we read what was said by by Baroness Stowell who was at the time Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government after referring to how the filming issue had been dealt with in other parts of the country said on the 21st November last year “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.”
Generally people would think that a “process of consultation” means a consultation, yet the Department of Communities and Local Government doesn’t regard this as a “consultation” but instead as “soundings”. However whether it was a consultation or soundings is about as worthwhile as discussing the answer to the question, “How many angels can you fit on the head of a pin?”. The draft regulations will become law in a matter of weeks.
I’ll continue at a later date going through some more of the responses. The regulations place a legal responsibility on councils to provide “reasonable facilities”. In the days of newspaper journalists needing a table to sit on that was generally what was interpreted as reasonable facilities. However some of the responses I’ll go through in detail tomorrow ask if “reasonable facilities” could be interpreted as providing free wireless internet access to those wanting to film, tweet, blog etc. It’s an interesting idea, I know in another part of the country a blogger used the public wireless internet access there provided to the press to stream a Council meeting on Youtube earlier this year.
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