Labour U-turn on filming of Wirral Council public meetings

Labour U-turn on filming of Wirral Council public meetings, a report on the second reading of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill including quotes from the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP and Hilary Benn MP on the subject of filming Council meetings

Labour U-turn on filming of Wirral Council public meetings


It’s rare I write a blog post on a Sunday but I thought it best to write an update about how the issue of filming of council meetings (at least in England) is progressing as it was discussed in the House of Commons on Monday 28th October as part of the second reading of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill.

I will quote from what MPs said in that debate along with my own comments on what was said. The quotes are from Hansard, you can also watch video footage of the debate on Parliament TV (the date was Monday 28th October 2013), but as the debate went on for many hours it can be difficult to find the parts about filming.

First to speak on this issue was the Minister for Communities and Local Government, the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP who said, “Perhaps our most significant proposal is to give people the right to film, blog or tweet at council meetings. Some councils would prefer meetings to be held behind closed doors, but the public has the right to see decisions being taken and how the money is spent.

A private Member’s Bill promoted by Mrs Thatcher introduced the right to attend council meetings back in 1960, and that in turn built on a law introduced by the Liberal Government of 1908, so this is truly a coalition of minds. It is right that we should now bring her legacy up to date for the digital age. We have previously amended secondary legislation to open up councils’ executive meetings and have encouraged councils to open up their full council and committees. Many have refused, however, citing health and safety, data protection or just standing orders. Tower Hamlets said that such a change would lead to “reputational damage”. Well, yes, it probably will when people see what is going on in their council chambers. There have even been cases of the police being called to threaten bloggers with arrest. We will therefore make the necessary changes to primary legislation to allow full councils and committees to be open as well.

Our argument is that the coalition Government are scrapping the top-down red tape of Whitehall inspection and micro-management. That will save taxpayers’ money and help to devolve power, but it must go hand in hand with local transparency and accountability. We must ensure an independent free press and scrutinise and challenge bad decisions by councils. Individual taxpayers and the new wave of citizen journalists must be let in to conduct their own scrutiny. We are localising audit and scrapping protection, while ensuring that there is protection against the bad old days of municipal corruption. In short, the Bill will deliver greater openness, stronger local democracy, accountability and significant savings for the taxpayer. I commend it to the House.”

My comments on what Eric Pickles said are that currently the public (and press) already have the right to film, blog and tweet at Wirral Council meetings already which is granted to them by article 10 (freedom of expression) of the Human Rights Act 1998 c.42. It is unlawful for any council to act in a way that is incompatible with article 10 (freedom of expression) due to section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

The legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher referred to by the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP is the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 c.67. The secondary legislation referred to by the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP is the more recent Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 (which at Wirral Council only applies to Cabinet meetings and decisions made by individual Cabinet Members).

“Many have refused, however, citing health and safety, data protection” seems to be a reference to Wirral Council, this tweet below of mine from June shows my frustration as both reasons were given in reference to a Planning Committee meeting, the same reasons (although apart from that one Planning Committee meeting not used together at the same meeting) have been given at other Wirral Council meetings in the past twelve months too. Wirral Council have never given standing orders as a reason as there isn’t anything in their current constitution (or past constitution) about it. Personally I’ve never been threatened with arrest or the police for trying to film a meeting, although in other parts of the UK people have.

Hilary Benn MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said on the issue of filming, “We will therefore support that change, and also the proposal that councils in England should allow the recording and videoing of council and committee meetings. In this day and age, big changes in technology make recording and videoing readily possible, and I cannot see the difference between sitting in a meeting, listening and writing down what is being said, or—for those who have shorthand—taking a verbatim record, and making one’s own recording.

As the Secretary of State acknowledged, a new generation of bloggers is relating to politics in a different way, which we should all warmly welcome—frankly, the more people who get to hear what their local council is doing, the better. Who knows? Perhaps this House will one day follow suit and allow those watching us to keep their own records of proceedings—indeed, I may one day be tempted to record the Secretary of State from across the Dispatch Box. I have, however, a sneaking suspicion that Brass Crosby—who, as some Members will know, was committed to the Tower of London in the 1770s for daring as Lord Mayor to release a newspaper editor who had had the audacity to report what was happening in Parliament—and indeed Thomas Hansard, after whom the Official Report is named, would both thoroughly approve of that change.”

The reason why this would only apply to councils in England is because in the other parts of the UK (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) that it’s up to the Welsh Assembly Government, Scottish Parliament or Northern Ireland Assembly to decide whether they want this sort of change. Hilary Benn is right that at the moment anyone could publish a verbatim account of Council meetings, the main difference between that and an audio recording is that an audio recording also records how something is said.

Video adds an extra element of body language though, not just of the person speaking but of the reaction of other politicians to what’s being said. Hilary Benn also went as far as to tweet about this (his tweet is below):

I welcome Hilary Benn’s tweet and Labour’s support for a change in the law to make things clearer to local councils. I have seen in the past Labour councillors criticise during a Council meeting one of the opposition councillor groups for taking a different policy position to that of their party nationally. I hope Wirral Labour councillors will take heed of the tweet of their frontbench spokesperson Hilary Benn on the matter.

The next stage in the Local Audit and Accountability Bill’s progress through the House of Commons is the Committee stage which was on November 4th at 4pm in Committee Room 13 at the Palace of Westminster (ironically for a bill with accountability in the title this stage is being held in private not public). I’m sure myself and many other bloggers in England will be keen to follow this bill and await the text of the amendments to the Local Audit and Accountability Bill in relation to filming with interest.

The tweet of Labour’s spokesperson nationally on this issue will hopefully prevent any attempts by Wirral Labour councillors at censorship of filming of Wirral Council meetings between now and when the bill becomes law, as if they do try to stop filming they will lay themselves open to the criticism they make of others in saying one thing nationally, but doing another at the local level.

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I was barred from filming Wirral Council’s Planning Committee tonight, usual excuses health and safety, data protection both are bogus reasons

I was barred from filming Wirral Council’s Planning Committee tonight, usual excuses health and safety, data protection both are bogus reasons

Wirral Council’s Pensions Committee bans filming and public from public meeting on “health and safety grounds”

Wirral Council bans public from filming Pensions Committee on “health and safety” grounds.

Wirral Council bans filming and public from public meeting Bizarrely at the start of the Pension Committee all members of the public were asked to leave by the Chair (who seemed to conveniently forget that the public have a legal right to be there).

What followed was twenty minutes of discussion as to whether to allow filming at the meeting. Quite exactly what took place during that twenty minutes, I can only report based on the snippets heard as Cllr Harry Smith’s voice reverberated through the closed-door as he told the Committee how “upsetting” he found filming. Getting into his stride he used one of his favourite words “political” not just once but multiple times and said it should be banned because I was a member of a political party (untrue). He said he had no issue with anyone else filming who was “non-political” but then tried to say I am a member of the Liberal Democrats (which I’m not), then contradicting himself in the same sentence by referring to me as an independent. As Peter Cook put it once, “You may choose if you wish to believe a transparent tissue of odious lies, that streamed on and on ….. that is entirely a matter for you.”

When it was pointed out by another councillor that this was irrelevant to the issue of filming the meeting, Cllr Harry Smith just looked even more irate, seemingly unused to any councillor (or in fact anybody) having the temerity to tell him he was being irrelevant.

When the public returned Cllr Ann McLachlan read out a recommendation that at least from where I was sitting couldn’t be heard. Another councillor then tabled an amendment to “current Committee meeting” as it was subject to a review. Cllr Adrian Jones asked him to repeat what he’d said as he hadn’t heard it. He repeated it, Cllr George Davies shouted “current” at Cllr Adrian Jones followed by the Chair saying “at the moment”.

Despite separate votes being required for the amendment and resolution only one vote was taken, 8:5 on the amended resolution.

The Chair, Cllr Patricia Glasman then said, “So the resolution is carried, OK, so ladies and gentlemen, Mr and Mrs Brace, you may not film this meeting tonight on the basis that your equipment has not been…, it does actually say that you would have to have a health and safety agreement to use your equipment and that that’s because of errm a review, which is currently Council is looking into the issue of filming.”

John Brace, “Would it be ok if I filmed without the tripod, is that the issue?”

Chair, Cllr Patricia Glasman, “Errm, well the tripod is one of the issues, but no, we’ve had a resolution, asking you not to film the meeting.”

John Brace, “Can I have a copy of the resolution if possible?”

Licensing, Health and Safety and General Purposes Committee (Wirral Council) 25th September 2012

Licensing, Health and Safety and General Purposes Committee (Wirral Council) 25th September 2012

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Part 1 of 4 Licensing, Health & Safety and General Purposes Committee (Wirral Council) 25th September 2012
Part 2 of 4 Licensing, Health & Safety and General Purposes Committee (Wirral Council) 25th September 2012
Part 3 of 4 Licensing, Health & Safety and General Purposes Committee (Wirral Council) 25th September 2012
Part 4 of 4 Licensing, Health & Safety and General Purposes Committee (Wirral Council) 25th September 2012
All parts 1-4 Licensing, Health & Safety and General Purposes Committee 25th September 2012 (Wirral Council)

Arriva and the tale of the new bus stop at which Arriva buses won’t stop (for 5 months!) – Hoylake Road/Compton Road, Bidston

As regular readers of the Bidston & St. James Focus know, Merseytravel recently responded to a campaign we ran (on behalf of local residents of Beechwood) for extra bus stops on Hoylake Road near the Wirral Tennis & Sports Centre.

The one on the North side of Hoylake Road (opposite Compton Road) is fine and buses are stopping at it. Both stops now have timetables in too.

At the end of June I met with a representative of Merseytravel and Wirral Council on site. There was some concern about the effect of parking and traffic from Compton Road. However since a road of houses off Compton Road was demolished to make a park for Bidston Rise there’s been much less traffic coming into and out of Compton Road (which is short and only has houses one side). Both Merseytravel and Wirral Council agreed there would be no road safety issues as long as the bus stop didn’t obscure a drive on Hoylake or affect sight lines. At this point (a few yards from a set of traffic lights the traffic would be moving slowly anyway).

The bus would be fine stopping on the double yellow lines here and the no loading sign wouldn’t apply to a bus.

However a local resident recently stopped me in the street and told me that Arriva buses were not stopping at the Hoylake Road/Compton Road stop on the South side of Hoylake Road.

Originally Merseytravel had planned to put this stop further along Hoylake Road, but the resident outside whose house it’d be objected on grounds of parking and privacy. So instead it was sited nearer to the double yellow lines/no loading at Compton Road/Hoylake Road.

The resident said she had tried to get off Arriva buses at this stop, but they wouldn’t let her on/off, with the driver insisting it wasn’t a stop. However other operators such as Avon that use this route were stopping here. This sounded odd to me, so I wrote to Arriva.

Back in July all operators on the route (including Arriva) were written to about the proposed pair of new bus stops. This is what the Managing Director of Arriva wrote on the 16th July 2010 (before the bus stop was put in):-

Should existing bus stops be moved, Mr. Finnie would be more than happy to continue using these to aid access to the Tesco store for our customers. However, this would have to be fully risk assessed to ensure that these stops could be used safely

Bear in mind the existing bus stops weren’t moved, but new ones were added! A risk assessment was done by Wirral Council.

Arriva wrote to me again in a letter dated 23rd February 2011. In this they quote “The manager of Birkenhead depot has investigated and advised the following. Our drivers have been instructed not to serve this stop until we have carried out a full safety assessment on it. We apologise for any inconvenience this may be causing, but it is essential for the safety of our passengers, our drivers and other road users that this is completed before it is used. The stop will then be served once we have registered this additional stop with the Local Authority as we are required to do so.”

So, to summarise Arriva won’t stop their buses at a new bus stop which has been in place for 5 months. It’s already been risk assessed by Wirral Council and Merseytravel and been found to be a suitable site for a bus stop. The timetable insert (provided by Merseytravel) gives people the impression the Arriva services stop here. Today I took some photos of the stop and recorded a video to try and explain to Arriva (and the public) why they aren’t stopping here!

Hopefully Arriva will have some common sense in the near future and/or carry out their “full safety assessment”. I’ll be writing to Simon Finnie, the General Manager at Birkenhead (and back to Steven Hill) and taking him up on the offer of a site visit and Merseytravel if they wish to come.

Compton Road/Hoylake Road bus stop timetable

Compton Road/Hoylake Road bus stop timetable

Compton Road/Hoylake Road bus stop timetable

I did make a one minute video of myself at the bus stop explaining the above, but the traffic seems to have drowned me out! When out this morning, I did bump into the resident who seemed pleased that someone was taking an interest in the problem. However she was walking someone to school and couldn’t chat long.

When I clear up the audio (or dub over it) I’ll post it on this blog. On a point of local history, when I was a teenager the secondary school used to play hockey on the astroturf pitches at Wirral Tennis & Sports Centre in the Winter and Spring term. As the school day finished at the Wirral Tennis & Sports Centre we were expected to make our own way back home as the school minibus only took a few back to the school gates (the school minibus took twelve, but about a hundred boys in my year did sports here each week arriving in a coach). In 1994-1996 I could have done with these extra bus stops (especially in the cold Winter!) as it would’ve saved me a few minutes walk after the slog up the steep hill with sports gear from the sports centre.

However, the main reason behind these stops is to help Beechwood residents who visit Tesco by bus to shop. These extra stops save about 3 minutes walk along Hoylake Road (which with heavy bags of shopping can be tiring for the elderly or disabled).