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 kind of meeting the regulations will cover)
What was said in the House of Commons and House of Lords in the penultimate stages of the filming public meetings law?
The Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 went through the penultimate stages in the House of Commons and House of Lords on the 1st July 2014. The last stage is an approval motion in the House of Commons and House of Lords.
The two debates will be of some interest to people interested in the whole filming of public meetings saga. The text of both debates is included below and contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v1.0..
The first politicians to debate the regulations in the morning were MPs on the Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee in Committee Room 9.
Draft Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Jim Dobbin
† Birtwistle, Gordon (Burnley) (LD)
† Blackman-Woods, Roberta (City of Durham) (Lab)
Campbell, Mr Ronnie (Blyth Valley) (Lab)
† Clarke, Mr Tom (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab)
Coffey, Ann (Stockport) (Lab)
† Freer, Mike (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con)
† Goldsmith, Zac (Richmond Park) (Con)
† Jenrick, Robert (Newark) (Con)
† Jones, Susan Elan (Clwyd South) (Lab)
† Latham, Pauline (Mid Derbyshire) (Con)
† Lewis, Brandon (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government)
Morris, Grahame M. (Easington) (Lab)
† Perry, Claire (Devizes) (Con)
† Roy, Lindsay (Glenrothes) (Lab)
Simpson, David (Upper Bann) (DUP)
† Ward, Mr David (Bradford East) (LD)
† Weatherley, Mike (Hove) (Con)
† Whittaker, Craig (Calder Valley) (Con)
Fergus Reid, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee
Tuesday 1 July 2014
[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]
Draft Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014.
These regulations are part of a series of measures based on the Localism Act 2011 and the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 which the coalition Government enacted to protect local democracy, enhance local scrutiny and create 21st-century local accountability. Specifically, the regulations enhance the rights of the press and public to report council meetings using digital and social media. They also enhance the rights of people who want to know what decisions are being taken by council officers on behalf of elected members. That the public can readily know what the people they have elected to represent them are doing is the lifeblood of democracy—that is fundamental and has long been recognised as such. It was Baroness Thatcher who introduced the right for the press and public to attend and report council meetings, back in 1960, through a successful private Member’s Bill that she introduced in her maiden speech. However, a well-functioning democracy is not something set in stone. It has to keep pace and be flexible to move with the way people live their lives, the way they communicate and how they share and discuss information.
The use of digital and social media runs through our daily life now. If the Government are to be true to the legacy of Baroness Thatcher, the rights that were given to people in 1960 to report and access council meetings must be updated to encompass the digital world of Twitter and Facebook that we live in today. When we sought views about these regulations, the Local Government Association stated that it did
“not believe that further central government regulations are needed in this area.”
The Government do not accept that. While some councils have embraced social media, there are examples of other councils that have ejected members of the public from meetings or even threatened them with arrest for trying to report council meetings using digital media. This cannot happen in a modern democracy and those councils do not stand true to the principles of openness. The regulations before us today will ensure that that can no longer happen and will ensure that local democracy is on a modern footing.
The regulations amend existing legislation to put beyond doubt the rights of the public to film, record sound and use social media to report public meetings of their local council. The regulations also cover other local government bodies and their committees, sub-committees and joint committees. Let me be clear: these regulations apply to all principal councils, such as county councils, London borough councils, district councils, unitary councils, to the City of London, to the Isles of Scilly, and to parish and town councils and, indeed, to parish meetings across the country. They also apply to such local government bodies as fire and rescue authorities, Transport for London and the Greater London authority. In each case, these regulations give people the right to film, blog or tweet at meetings of the council or body and at meetings of all its committees or sub-committees. In essence, what will be required is that where a council has to provide access to the public, in future those exercising that right of access from the public area will be able to use their own equipment to film, tweet or blog from their own phone, iPad or whatever technical equipment comes next. These same rights apply to meetings of a council’s executive and any committee or sub-committee of that executive.
Nearly two years ago, the coalition made the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012, which for the first time opened up the meetings of an executive to filming and reporting by social media. The regulations before us today simply extend what we achieved for council executives in 2012 to all meetings of a council. The 2012 regulations also gave the public rights to see a written record of decisions that officers take on behalf of the council’s executive. The regulations we are considering also extend those rights to decisions that officers take on behalf of the council or any of its committees or sub-committees. Specifically, when a council or one of its committees delegates to officers decisions that affect the rights of individuals; grant a permission or licence; incur expenditure or award a contract that would have a material impact on the financial position of the council or local government body, there must be a record of the decision the officer takes.
In the Adjournment debate in the House last night, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) outlined why it is so important that people can see exactly what decisions are made and what the impact on them can be. The record of the decision will include the reason for it, any alternative options considered or rejected, and any other background documents. That will mean there is transparency and openness in how these bodies make the decisions that significantly affect the lives of those in their communities.
These important rights will ensure that our local democracy is fit for purpose, not just today but in the world of tomorrow. To ensure that these rights are smoothly and effectively introduced and recognised everywhere, my Department has worked with the local government sector to develop a “plain English guide” which has been published in draft form on the Government website. If Parliament approves the regulations, a final version of the guide will be published to accompany them. The guide covers what the new rights mean for the public, members and officers and will incorporate and extend the plain English guide that we published in 2013, following the 2012 regulations, entitled, “Your council’s cabinet: going to its meetings, seeing how it works”. The guide will cover a range of matters and, in particular, will make it clear that nothing in the regulations will impact on the chairman’s power to exclude members of the public in cases of genuine disruption. It will also explain the clear legal position that the act of filming and using social media cannot, in itself, be considered disruptive.
If Parliament approves the regulations, we will draw that to the attention of the bodies affected or their representative associations as soon as practically possible and undertake that the Secretary of State will not make the regulations until at least 28 days after parliamentary approval is given. With that undertaking, and our having published the draft version of the plain English guide, local government bodies will have sufficient time to familiarise themselves with the provisions if the regulations receive parliamentary approval and we will have an early indication of any practical issues that may arise.
In conclusion, the regulations will mean that, in future, local government everywhere is more open, transparent and accountable to the public that it serves.
Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I would be reassured if the Minister would enlighten the Committee as to whether the measures will cover meetings of the Local Government Association and similar organisations.
Brandon Lewis: It will not cover the LGA. That is not an official local government body. It will cover all local councils—parish councils, town councils—but not the LGA. That organisation is funded and arranged by local government itself rather than being a decision-making body for the public.
People will be more readily able to see and know who they are electing and what those people are doing. That is good for democracy and for elected members, because it means they get a chance to show the public the great work they do in town halls across the country. It is certainly good for our communities, for local government and for the vital services that councils provide, and will ensure people’s confidence through transparency and understanding. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. The Minister and shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford), who is unable to be here, agreed during the passage of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 that the Government would bring forward these powers to ensure that the public can film, blog or tweet at all meetings of a full council, its committees and sub-committees that they can attend. As the Minister points out, this is about bringing local democracy up to speed with today’s fast-moving digital age.
Most local authorities are embracing new technology and greater transparency. In Durham, the county council has very active Facebook and Twitter feeds, followed by thousands of local residents. I had a look yesterday morning. Those feeds have recently promoted and shared information about new jobs, the commencement of roadworks with a useful map, and the new state-of-the-art multi-sensory room at Spennymore leisure centre. Those new communication channels enable local authorities to speak quickly and directly to their local communities.
At the same time, we have a local media industry that is sadly in decline. The internet and social media mean that more people are accessing news and information online. Circulation of local newspapers is declining, staff and resources are being cut and more council meetings are taking place without a reporter in the public gallery. I should point out that my own local newspaper, The Northern Echo, is assiduous in its coverage of council meetings in Durham and it should be commended for that.
Over recent years we have seen local authorities experiment with new ways of broadcasting council meetings, such as live streaming video or audio, using Twitter to post updates and uploading transcripts online. While the number of people watching those webcasts may be small, the audience online is significantly higher than in the meeting room itself and it has the power to grow exponentially. A retweet or a shared Facebook post expands the potential reach of that piece of information by tens or hundreds with just one click.
Of course, not every authority will feel it has the capacity or budget to purchase webcasting or recording equipment, especially when councils are facing the biggest cuts of anyone in the public sector. According to figures released yesterday by the LGA, local authorities are now facing a £5.8 billion shortfall over the next two years, leaving many councils, according to Sir Merrick Cockell, on a knife edge. Many local authorities are struggling to deliver their statutory services so it is right that we give powers to the public to film and record council meetings rather than making it mandatory that councils do it themselves.
While we are broadly in support of the direction that the Government are taking, there are a few areas that I would like the Minister’s assurances on. He has compared this piece of legislation to the introduction of cameras into the House of Commons, but that is not entirely accurate. When we sit in the Chamber or, indeed, in Committee Rooms, we can be pretty much certain that we are not having pictures or videos taken of us. Indeed, members of the public are banned from even taking a phone into the public gallery of the House of Commons. There are certain rules for recording in both Houses, but not all of those rules will exist in the town hall.
For example, what if someone wanted to film a meeting using a big camera and wanted to set up the tripod, perhaps a spotlight to improve visual quality and maybe even a boom to stretch out further into the room to better pick up the sound? In many town halls space in the public gallery is tight. What does the Minister expect to happen in such a circumstance? The instrument says:
“A person attending a meeting of a principal council in England for the purpose of reporting on the meeting must, so far as practicable, be afforded reasonable facilities for doing so.”
Can the Minister give us some examples of what might be classed as reasonable or unreasonable? What does the Minister think might happen if the filming or recording was focused on one particular member to intentionally damage their reputation?
The Minister said in a written ministerial statement last week that he will soon be sending local authorities a <A HREF="“>draft version of a new plain English guide, which he mentioned again this morning. I am sure councils would appreciate his assurance that, when preparing it, the Government took into account as many possibilities as they could.
We know that there will be some rough edges that need ironing out as these powers settle in. There will be unforeseen issues that will require sensible, reasoned solutions. In general though, Mr Dobbin, we will not oppose the legislation. We believe that in the vast majority of cases, the new powers will be introduced with common sense and respect and will generally improve reporting of and engagement with democracy, particularly at a local level.
Brandon Lewis: I will try to deal with all the points that the hon. Lady has raised. She is quite right; not all councils—certainly not parish councils or some of the smaller bodies—have that kind of webcasting equipment. It is slightly different from the House of Commons, where everything we do is recorded and broadcast. Indeed, on her point about recording being focused on an individual member, that is exactly what happens when we are speaking in the House of Commons.
Gordon Birtwistle (Burnley) (LD): I may have missed this. Would members of the council be able to use Twitter and social media while the meeting is going on? I am a councillor in Burnley and the first thing the mayor does at the beginning of a meeting is to tell everyone to switch off all phones and everything like that; they are totally banned. Will council members now be able to use social media during council meetings?
Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. As I said in my opening remarks, councillors should not be anything other than excited that this gives a chance for more people to see more of the great work they are doing in councils across the country. Yes, under the regulations, councillors will be able to tweet or blog and use the same powers that any other member of the public can. The only proviso is that we would—as would the chair of any council meeting, quite rightly—expect councillors to be paying full attention and to take part fully in any debate. It is a judgment call for the councillor and, indeed, the council over whether tweeting and blogging during the meeting detracts from councillors’ ability to do their job. There is a point where we have to trust people to be adult and sensible about what they are doing, and trust the council to take a reasonable view about that.
On the question of unnecessary burdens and reasonable facilities, we do not expect local government bodies to provide members of the public with equipment such as laptops or cameras. People attending meetings of their local government bodies with the aim of filming, audio recording or taking photographs are expected to come with their own equipment and it has to be reasonable. The local authority or body still has the ability to take a sensible decision if something becomes too intrusive in the meeting, which is why I would expect those people to be based in the public area.
We expect people who want to film or take photographs in public meetings to be considerate. At the same time, local government bodies should not consider such activities to be disruptive in their own right. That is why we are developing a plain English guide, of which the hon. Lady can see the <A HREF="draft format on our website. That covers what will be classed as disruptive behaviour. Bear in mind that councils do have existing rules and powers allowing them to manage disruptive behaviour at meetings and those will still apply.
Some councils already have webcasting equipment. I remember being webcast when I was a council leader in about 2005. The hon. Lady is right; it allows more people to have access to what a council is doing. I was rather surprised to receive e-mails from people in America who, for some reason, had taken a great interest in our district council’s movements and decisions. That is a good thing. The measure is just taking that to the level where the public have the right to report what is happening in a meeting.
I must be clear in answer to the question of the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. The regulations do not apply to some non-public formal bodies. If he wants to see which bodies are covered, he can look at the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014, which makes it clear that the regulations only apply to formal local government bodies; they are listed in section 40(6).
Before summing up, I have to pick up on a couple of the comments made by the hon. Member for City of Durham. She may not be surprised that I highlight her comment around the LGA’s statement this week, which lacks some credibility, bearing in mind that it has been making the same claim year after year, yet every council has submitted balanced budgets. Having looked at what the LGA is basing its assumptions on, its forward assumptions are, at best, questionable. I have said before that to make a credible statement of this type, local authorities need to be away from their current position where they have a record level of about £19 billion in reserves—an increase on the previous year—more than £2 billion in fraud and error to deal with and £2 billion in uncollected council tax. The openness and transparency of local government is important. It is important to ensure that we have robust local accountability. That can only be truly achieved when the public have the right to attend, report on, understand and know about what happens in all public meetings.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: Will the Minister deal with the specific issue I raised about focus on one particular member of the council? The parallel in the Houses of Parliament is that we are all recorded; everything we say is recorded in the same way. I raised a point about the week in, week out or month in, month out specific selective recording of one member of the council by a member of the public, which is then used to damage the reputation of that person. How will that be dealt with?
Brandon Lewis: I am struggling to understand how the hon. Lady sees that as an issue. Councillors have been elected to a public position and should be prepared to stand publicly for what they say and have it reported. I do not see a problem with an individual member being covered. However, if the hon. Lady is implying that intimidation is taking place, there are already laws available, and the council has powers over disruptive behaviour.
Councillors should embrace this measure. If councillors are not prepared to be open, clear and transparent with their residents about what they say and do, they should not be councillors in the first place. That is unlikely to be the case; in most of the country our councillors do a fantastic job every day of the year, working for their local residents. They should welcome this measure as a chance to show the public more of what they do.
The hon. Lady earlier made a point about her local newspaper. We are moving on with how the media work. More of those local newspapers are developing local websites. Some local newspapers—she noted her own—such as my local paper Great Yarmouth Mercury , have increased sales thanks to good journalism. That should not be a reason to stop the public being able to tweet or blog, or indeed councillors, as long as they are paying attention while tweeting to what is going on in the council chamber.
Councils and other local bodies are entrusted to make decisions that significantly affect their residents and communities. We should all be clear about that representing good value for money. The regulations will ensure that every decision, whether taken in a full council meeting or in an unheard-of sub-committee, can be taken in the full glare not just of the press but any member of the public affected.
Question put and agreed to.
A House of Lords committee (Grand Committee) then discussed the same regulations in the afternoon in the Moses Room . A transcript of that meeting is below.
Tuesday, 1 July 2014.
Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014
Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 20141st Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments
Motion to Consider
Moved by Baroness Stowell of Beeston
That the Grand Committee do consider the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014.
Relevant document: 1st Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (special attention drawn to the instrument)
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Stowell of Beeston) (Con): My Lords, the regulations were laid before this House on 3 April. They are part of a series of measures, founded on the Localism Act 2011 and the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014, which this coalition Government have taken to protect local democracy, enhance local scrutiny, and create 21st-century local accountability. Specifically, these regulations enhance the rights of the press and public to report council meetings in digital and social media. They also enhance the rights of people to know what decisions are being taken by council officers on behalf of elected members.
That the public can readily know what those they have elected to represent them are doing is the very lifeblood of democracy. This is fundamental and has long been recognised. It was my late friend Lady Thatcher who introduced the right for the press and public to attend and report council meetings back in 1960 through a successful Private Member’s Bill, which she first mentioned in her maiden speech in the other place. A well functioning democracy, however, is not something set in stone. It must keep pace with the way people live their lives, and the way they communicate and share and discuss information.
Use of digital and social media now runs through daily life. The rights which were given to people in 1960 to report and access council meetings now need to be updated to encompass the digital world of today. I know that when we debated the provisions of what is now the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 there was a general welcome across the House for the kind of changes I have just outlined. I also know that a number of noble Lords had concerns about how precisely we could implement these changes, and at the same time avoid creating circumstances in which the good conduct of business in a council could be put at risk, or where those using the digital media might inadvertently put themselves at risk through breaching laws on defamation.
We believe it is possible to give the public modern 21st-century rights of access and of reporting, and equally to address the concerns such as those that have been raised. The principal means of doing this will be through our plain-English guide that we are developing with local government. I will say more on this in a moment, but through it we envisage dealing specifically with issues such as defamation, disrupting a meeting, or inhibiting the free exchange of views among the council members.
When we sought views about these regulations, the Local Government Association stated that it does,
“not believe that further central government regulations are needed in this area”.
We agree that many councils are already opening their meetings to digital reporting. But sadly there have been occasions where councils have sought to prevent this, even in a few cases ejecting members of the public from meetings for trying to report them using the digital media of today. I am sure that if this can happen, it is not the modern democracy we all want. The regulations before us today will ensure that this cannot happen in future. They will ensure that local democracy everywhere in the country is on a modern footing. We want ordinary people to be clear about their rights.
Turning to specifics, the regulations will amend existing legislation to put beyond doubt the rights of the public to film, audio-record and use social media to report public meetings of their council or other local government bodies, their committees, sub-committees and joint committees. To be clear, these regulations apply to all principal councils—county councils, London borough councils, district councils, unitary councils, the City of London and the Isles of Scilly. They apply also to local government bodies such as fire and rescue authorities, Transport for London and the Greater London Authority.
The regulations apply equally to parish and town councils. I know that there was some concern about how this will work in practice, particularly for small parish councils, or indeed the parish meeting. The practicalities will be covered in the plain-English guide. It will specify, for example, that while the public can film, they can do so only from the area that the public normally use and that none of this requires the council to make equipment available or to provide special electronics or lighting.
In essence, where today a council has to provide access to the public, in future, those exercising that right of access will in addition be able, from that same public area, to use their own equipment to film, or to tweet from their own devices, such as an iPhone or iPad. In the interests of impartiality and to demonstrate that I am digitally savvy, I should say that they could also use tablets or Androids.
In every case these regulations give people the right to film, blog or tweet at meetings of the council or body and at meetings of any of the council or body’s committees or sub-committees. These same rights apply to meetings of a council’s executive and any committee or sub-committee of the executive.
Nearly two years ago we made the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012, which for the first time opened up the meetings of an executive to filming and reporting by social media. The regulations before us today now extend what we have achieved for council executives in 2012 to all the meetings of a council.
The 2012 regulations also gave the public rights to see a written record of decisions officers take on behalf of the council’s executive. The regulations we are considering today likewise extend these rights to decisions that officers take on behalf of the council or any of its committees or sub-committees.
Specifically, where a council or one of its committees delegates to officers decisions that affect the rights of individuals, grant a permission or licence, or that relate to incurring expenditure or awarding a contract that would have a material impact on the financial position of the council or local government body, there must be a record of the decision the officer takes. The record of the decision will include the reason for the decision, any alternative options considered and rejected and any other background documents. That will mean that there is transparency and openness in the way these bodies make the decisions that significantly affect the lives of those in their communities.
As I have explained, these are important rights which will ensure that our local democracy is fit for purpose in the world of today. To ensure that these rights are smoothly and effectively introduced and recognised everywhere, my department is working with the local government sector on publishing, if Parliament approves these regulations and they are made, a plain-English guide about what these rights mean for the public, for members and for officers. This will incorporate and extend the plain-English guide we published in 2013, Your Council’s Cabinet — Going to its Meetings, Seeing How it Works, following the 2012 regulations.
As I mentioned, a draft version of the plain-English guide has been published and deals with such issues as defamation and disruption. It contains guidance for the public on libel and the responsibility they must take for the comments they tweet or the videos they publish.
Regarding disruption, the guide will make clear that nothing in these regulations will impact on the chairman’s power to exclude members of the public in cases of genuine disruption, while explaining the clear legal position that the act of filming and using social media in itself cannot be considered as disruptive.
Turning to the timing of the coming into force of the regulations, the regulations provide that they will come into force on the day after which they are made. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments did not find a compelling justification for this timing of coming into force, and accordingly reported that the provision appeared to make an unusual use of the power conferred by Section 40 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014.
The Government accept that it is important that there is a smooth introduction of the new rights which the regulations will give the press and public, and accordingly they have undertaken not to make the statutory instrument until at least 28 days after the day on which any parliamentary approval for the statutory instrument is given. In taking this approach the Government have had careful regard to the report of the Joint Committee.
In conclusion, these regulations will mean that in future local government everywhere is more open, more transparent and more accountable. People will more readily be able to see and know what those who they elected are doing. That is good for democracy, it is good for elected members, it is good for our communities and it is good for local government and the vital services that councils provide.
I commend the regulations to the committee.
Lord Smith of Leigh (Lab): My Lords, before I start, I need to declare my interest as leader of a council, chairman of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and a vice-president of LGA. I commend the Minister for the competent way in which she introduced the regulations today. I am sure we all agree that openness and transparency are as important in local government as anywhere else in public service.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord McKenzie for pointing out that I am mentioned in dispatches today. I am mentioned in the appendix of the first report of the 2014 session by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments in evidence provided by the Department for Communities and Local Government. I hope that the rest of the evidence is more accurate than the bit that quotes me. The very famous news source is the Daily Mail. How reliable does anybody think the Daily Mail is in providing stories about Labour in local government? What it says is entirely untrue. It says that a member of Wigan council was ejected by the police for tweeting. He was ejected because he would not obey the order of the mayor. It was to do with me as leader of the council. The mayor asked him to behave. He refused to do so. What does one do? He just would not follow instruction. That is the basic rule in any form of organisation. If the Deputy Chairman of Committees were to instruct us, we would obey. That is a basic law.
The fundamental question about these regulations is: why? Why are we spending today debating these regulations? There are more crucial issues in local government that we ought to be talking about. Yesterday, the LGA produced a report stating that local government spending is probably underfunded by just short of £6 billion, caused by cuts to government services and increasing demand. Sir Merrick Cockell, the Conservative leader of the LGA, said that local government funding is on a knife-edge, yet all we are doing is passing regulations that increase unnecessary spending in local government, even if only in a small way. Councils should be left to determine how to tackle these issues.
Whatever happened to localism? In 2011, we passed the Localism Act with grand claims about what it would mean for local government. The Secretary of State who introduced the Bill said:
“The Bill will reverse the centralist creep of decades and replace it with local control. It is a triumph for democracy over bureaucracy. It will fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country, revitalising local democracy and putting power back where it belongs … they managed to fulfil the wildest dreams of both Sir Humphrey Appleby and Mr Joseph Stalin. That strangled the life out of local government, so councils can barely get themselves a cup of tea without asking permission”.—[Official Report, Commons 17/1/11; col. 558.]
Those were strong words from the Secretary of State. I supported them then, and I still support them, but here we are introducing legislation about openness in every council.
Councils will have different ways of solving this problem because, as anyone who goes to different town halls knows, different town halls will need different solutions. There is no issue about whether members of the public should be allowed to do it. I am very pleased that people want to come and record me and film me. I would be very flattered if that were to happen as a regular thing, but I am sure it will not be after the first couple of meetings. We are stretching the point when we go into such detail about what each local authority will need to do to solve the problem about where people can and cannot film meetings effectively.
It is right that local government publishes what decisions are made, but to make non-compliance with some of this a criminal offence is perhaps going a little bit over the top. This is unnecessary legislation. We are back to the old days when anything that local government does is being determined not in each and every town hall but in Whitehall. I am sorry that we have reached that pass again. I hoped that we had gone beyond it, but, unfortunately, these regulations demonstrate that we have not.
Lord McKenzie of Luton (Lab): My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister for her explanation of these regulations, and I am delighted to have heard from my noble friend Lord Smith, the experienced voice of local government, who put the Department for Communities and Local Government correct in some of its submissions and reminded us just how precarious the financial position is of local government.
We do not oppose these regulations, although they are not without controversy. Of course, the principle of ensuring that local authority decision-making is accessible to the public so that they can better engage with it and encourage the delivery of value for money is not controversial. We are on the record— or the shadow Secretary of State Hilary Benn certainly is — about supporting the use of modern technology in the course of doing this. There is controversy about bringing the regulations into force the day after they are made. The Minister referred to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which was clear that it did not find compelling the justification that the department offered for the provision. I was going to ask the Minister to have another go at convincing us, but I understand from what she said in her introduction that the regulations will not be made for 28 days in any event — so in a sense that would give some breathing space.
The Minister could perhaps tell us why the Government eschewed a consultation on these regulations and opted for a short, focused, informal soundings exercise with partners. How transparent is that? We understand that all comments were carefully considered before finalising the regulations but, of course, we are not privy to all these comments. In the interests of transparency, could they be made available? We are told that the LGA did not support the regulations, believing that guidance would have sufficed. The National Association of Local Councils raised concerns over the practical implications of the proposals, and we all had the benefit of the submission of Transport for London, which set out its concerns and those of the GLA.
Will the Minister comment on the points raised on the vague and broadly based category of decisions that will need a written public record? There is a risk that lack of clarity will cause a wider interpretation of what is required with unintended and disproportionate burdens, and the suggestion, for example, that TfL would have to record and publish in the region of several thousands of decisions, including in relation to taxi and private hire licensing. There are concerns, too, over contracts whose terms and conditions include granting a permission or a license, adding burdens with very little impact on transparency, given DCLG’s local government transparency code of 2014. There are also concerns about provisions on background papers. I do not assert that Transport for London is correct in its concerns, but we are entitled to hear a response from the Minister to what seem to be the very real issues that were raised with us.
On what is perhaps a minor matter, we note that written records must be retained and made available for inspection for six years, but background papers for only four years. Perhaps somebody could explain the difference between those arrangements.
The Minister said in her introduction that it was agreed during the passage of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 that the Government would bring forward new powers to ensure that the public can film, blog or tweet at all meetings of the council, its committees and sub-committees, that they can attend. This is about bringing local democracy up to speed with today’s fast-moving digital age.
These new communication channels enable local authorities to speak quickly and directly to their local communities. As my honourable friend Roberta Blackman-Woods said in another place, the local media industry is sadly in decline. The internet and social media mean that people are accessing news and information online. The circulation of local newspapers has declined and staff and resources have been cut. Today, more and more council meetings are taking place without a reporter in the public gallery.
Over recent years, we have seen local authorities experiment with new ways of broadcasting council meetings such as live streaming video or audio, using Twitter to post updates and uploading transcripts online. Although the number of people watching these webcasts may be small, the online audience is significantly higher than in the meeting room itself, and has the power to grow exponentially. A retweet or a shared Facebook post grows the potential reach of that piece of information by tens or hundreds of people with just one click. We know that many local authorities are struggling to deliver their statutory services so it is right that we give powers to the public to film and record council meetings rather than make it mandatory for councils to do it themselves.
We are used to having our proceedings televised but rules govern how this is done. It seems to me that these rules will not necessarily exist at the town hall, so will the Minister offer her thoughts on circumstances where filming or recording is focused on one member in particular, and done in such a way as to intentionally seek to damage his or her reputation, perhaps by capturing an unguarded and unflattering moment? My honourable friend Roberta Blackman-Woods also referred in another place to the extent to which accommodation must be made for big equipment such as spotlights, but I think the Minister dealt with that in her opening remarks.
We note that there are no formal plans to monitor and review these regulations, which is a pity, but we look forward to the plain-English guide and hope that it will clarify some of the uncertainties around the drafting of these regulations — which, as I said, we nevertheless support.
Baroness Stowell of Beeston: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, talked about the need for these regulations and said that there was a reference to him in one of the documents that my department provided to the JCSI.
As I said at the start of the debate, we all believe in openness and transparency. We think that is a good thing and want people to have access to meetings. However, people’s expectations of what that means are changing because of the onset of social media. People no longer want to go to meetings and listen; they want to provide a commentary through tweeting or make a recording so that they can have an element of control in the way that they use the information they have gathered. That is the modern way in which democracy works in terms of public access.
Although the noble Lord is absolutely right to say that there is already widespread use of these forms of access on the part of local authorities, there is, however, evidence of some local authorities not allowing them. I do not think it is right that in this country in 2014 we should be put in a situation where it is possible for some people not to be able to tweet or record a public meeting just because a council thinks that they should not do so.
I can refer to few examples in addition to those to which the noble Lord referred, which I will not repeat. Tower Hamlets, for instance, barred a 71 year-old resident for filming, due to the risk of reputational damage to the authority. In November 2013, it was stated at a meeting of East Riding of Yorkshire Council that it would not allow filming or blogging of any meeting until forced to do so by law. In Middlesbrough, an AGM was suspended because an internet blogger refused to stop filming proceedings; people were told to leave the building after the meeting was suspended while the police were called.
I understand that they may be limited in number, but earlier this year I was in Strasbourg at a Council of Europe meeting, responding to a report of one of the committees there about local democracy in England. There were people in that committee from Turkey and other countries. I wanted to be able to demonstrate that, in our country, we have the kind of freedoms that people believe in and that we will, if those freedoms cannot be accessed, change the law where necessary to make it possible. We have done it in a simple and straightforward way.
The issue of expense has been raised. There is nothing in these regulations that should incur any cost to local authorities, because they are not required to provide any kind of additional facility whatever. I am aware that some local authorities record or even stream their meetings live as they are happening. That is a good thing, but they are not obliged to do so, and we certainly would not make that mandatory. The fact that there is some evidence of restrictions on the public means that we are now making absolutely clear what is possible, which local authorities are in most cases already doing. It should be quite a simple change for people to be able to cope with and implement.
That said — as I said in my opening remarks and as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked me to confirm—we will not bring the regulations into force until at least 28 days after they have hopefully been approved by Parliament. We have produced a plain-English language guide, a draft of which is available on my department’s website. It addresses the sorts of concerns that are legitimate, such as making sure that this access does not lead to inappropriate disruption. If noble Lords have not yet had a chance to look at it, I encourage them to do so.
I turn to some of the specific points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Smith and Lord McKenzie, which I have not already addressed in my remarks. The noble Lord, Lord Smith, asked about criminal sanctions. It is worth me being clear that the criminal sanction applies only to a situation in which a person without reasonable excuse prevents someone from accessing an existing document. It does not apply to the decision as to whether such a document should be produced; it is a question of there being evidence of somebody obstructing somebody from accessing a document.
On the categories of decisions made by officers on behalf of elected representatives, the regulations do not require the recording of day-to-day administrative decisions taken by officers. Rather, they require the recording of two categories of delegated decisions: those taken by officers under a specific delegation, and certain decisions taken under general delegation, as I mentioned. To the noble Lord’s point that most local authorities are already following good practice in this area, we believe that the work necessary in preparation for these regulations coming into force is quite minimal.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked what steps we have taken to consult others about these changes and about our informal soundings. The comments that we received from our soundings are described materially in the Explanatory Memorandum. The plain-English guide will make clear that decisions such as operational ones about, say, tickets, which the noble Lord referred to, do not need to be recorded.
Noble Lords raised the issue of whether access to the chamber for the recording of proceedings might lead to intimidation of councillors. Although it is important to be considerate of members of the public who do not wish to be filmed, we believe that an elected representative should not shy away from being held accountable for their words and actions in council meetings. In cases of actual intimidation, there are of course existing laws that prevent any kind of intimidation that would be threatening in nature.
On the recording of decisions, the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked why background papers need to be kept for four years and decision records for six. This is consistent with existing rules contained in the Local Government Act 1972 for decisions taken by members in council or committees. It is also consistent with the 2012 regulations about the openness of council executives.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, also asked about recording the granting of licences. It is right that, where a licence is granted, there needs to be a written record of the decision taken by the officer concerned. It is right that there should be transparency about the granting of such benefits to private individuals. Indeed, such decisions today will invariably be in writing.
I think I have covered all the points that were raised during the debate. I think that I should thank the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for the Official Opposition’s support for the regulations, although I was not entirely sure whether he was supporting them or not. However, there is a certain spirit of support for ensuring that we are as open and transparent as possible.
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