Filming public meetings on Merseyside (Open Democracy – Phase 2) Fire Authority is best, Liverpool Council is worst

Filming public meetings on Merseyside (Open Democracy – Phase 2) Fire Authority is best, Liverpool Council is worst

Filming public meetings on Merseyside (Open Democracy – Phase 2) Fire Authority is best, Liverpool Council is worst

                                                                            

Left an unknown Liverpool City Council councillor talks about filming locations at a meeting of its Constitutional Issues Committee on the 8th September 2014 Right Cllr Sharon Sullivan Labour
Left an unknown Liverpool City Council councillor talks about filming locations at a meeting of its Constitutional Issues Committee on the 8th September 2014 Right Cllr Sharon Sullivan Labour

Since the law changed on filming public meetings on the 6th August 2014 as part of our “Open Democracy” project, I have filmed a number of public meetings of various public bodies on Merseyside to try to get a better understanding of differences in cultural approaches towards the issue.

Here is the list of public bodies I filmed meetings of:

Metropolitan Borough of Wirral (Wirral Council)
Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority
Liverpool City Region Combined Authority (Merseytravel Committee)
Liverpool City Council

Note: the Merseyside Police and Crime Panel whose host authority is Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council was originally on this list but dropped due to changes to shift patterns due to a special meeting on the same evening.

I now have a better understanding of what makes up both best practice both for these public bodies and the media.

I could give a detailed score for each but these are all based on a particular public meeting for each public body. However I will briefly detail below what was the best and what was the worst and explain why.

Mersey Fire and Rescue Authority (the best)

This was a meeting of their Consultation and Negotiation Sub-committee held on the 2nd September 2014 starting at 1pm.

Out of the five different public bodies, in my opinion it is this one that went the best, despite a technical problem with our camera which meant filming had to be done in VGA and not HD.

Each councillor on the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority, fire officers and union representative had individual microphones that were tested before the meeting started. Agendas/reports were provided (on request) before the meeting started so that the press/public could follow the meeting. Agendas and reports are also available electronically through the Modgov iPad app. Councillors (and others speaking) knew how to use the microphones. Although some people arrived late, this could be because the room the meeting was held in was changed at short notice.

The receptionist was professional and the organisation itself came across as well run. The atmosphere both before, during and after the meeting was pleasant and friendly. The issue under discussion (industrial relations between the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service and the unions) was one that attracted great public interest and much interest when published.

The room the meeting was held in was well-lit and despite being held on the first floor had a working lift. I have no criticisms of the staff but only compliments.

Footage from this meeting can be viewed below.

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Merseytravel Committee (part of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority)

This was a meeting of the Merseytravel Committee held on the 4th September 2014 at 2.30pm. Each councillor and officer had and used microphones (a plus). Atmosphere was pleasant and friendly. The filming location was good as there was light from the nearby window. We were granted access to the room in plenty of time to set up a tripod and camera.

However the meeting room itself seemed dark due to shades put across some of the windows and at times those speaking didn’t always correctly use their microphones. Due to the design and layout of the room, the spot where the public sit is suboptimal for filming from a sitting position due to sight lines (although filming from a standing position would have overcome some of these difficulties). Meeting was not available on Modgov iPad app. Agendas/reports were provided on request.

Footage of this meeting can be viewed below.

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Wirral Council

This was a meeting of the Wallasey Constituency Committee Working Group held on the 6th August 2014 scheduled to start at 6.00pm. Microphones were not provided for this meeting. Access to the room was provided in advance of the meeting for setting up camera and tripod. Meeting was at times hard to follow, however filming location was optimal.

Background noise from an outside car park, noise from shipping from the nearby River Mersey and other types of background noise including from a tea/coffee machine in the room itself sometimes drowned out what was being said.

There were times when there was crosstalk during the meeting and unusually the meeting started without a Chair. Meeting was available on Modgov iPad app.

Footage of this meeting can be viewed below.

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Liverpool City Council (the worst)

This was a meeting of the Constitutional Issues Committee starting at 3.00pm on Monday 8th September in the West Reception Room, 1st floor, Liverpool Town Hall, Liverpool.

Upon arrival we were questioned by a private security guard working for a private security firm contracted by Liverpool City Council as to our purpose for being there. She summoned a junior Liverpool City Council employee.

The junior employee had to get his line manager to deal with our query causing a further delay as his line manager was not immediately available.

His line manager said that filming wouldn’t be allowed in the building as he hadn’t received “instructions” and referred to a “bylaw” (on latter reflection it seems this was actually a reference to an unchanged part of Liverpool City Council’s constitution which is not a bylaw but should’ve been changed by Liverpool City Council before the regulations coming into force on August 6th 2014). He insisted that permission was still required. Access to the meeting room before the meeting to set up a tripod and camera was originally denied by building staff line management.

During the conversations with these two people I asked if Liverpool City councillors would be stopped from proceeding to the meeting room upstairs before the meeting started at 3pm and was told they wouldn’t be as they were “regular visitors” to the Town Hall.

I was also told rather curiously that if they allowed filming in Liverpool Town Hall it would open up the prospect of people filming at swimming pools. If anybody could give me an example of a public meeting of a local council held at a swimming pool please leave a comment!

The issue of mobile phones was also brought up with me in a long explanation in the context of filming/recording. This was a rather long and curious explanation to say to somebody that doesn’t own a mobile phone though and had no mobile phone on him. The building staff manager explained that mobile phones couldn’t be confiscated as they were “private property” which is a bit of a moot point if you don’t have one!

A further conversation was had later between myself and the junior employee about how this was at odds with the documentation for the meeting (see page 1 “This is a legal duty for the Council to follow the new provisions” and page 2 “The Councils [sic] is required to provide “reasonable facilities” to facilitate reporting.”) and accompanying appendix 2 “In line with national legislation, the filming and recording of public meetings is permitted.”

He requested his line manager (again) but there appears to have been somewhat of a misunderstanding over the junior employee’s reply to this.

Another conversation was had with the line manager and reference was made to the reports and agenda for the meeting (which ironically was discussing the filming issue and change to the legislation). We found out later during the public meeting that Liverpool City Council had been allowing filming at its meetings for over a month yet nobody had told this building manager it seems!

The response then was (in a stark example of silo mentality at a local council) that these reports were the responsibility of another part of Liverpool City Council “Committee Services”, who had only booked the room in the Town Hall and not staff such as himself who were managing the building (referred to as an “important building” by the person he line managed) where the room was being held.

I then gave much explanation about regulations, House of Commons, House of Lords, how laws were made and how Liverpool City Council had to comply with its legal obligations whatever its constitution stated in a level of excruciating detail I have never had to do before or since.

Eventually the position somewhat changed and we were escorted by the line manager to the room where the meeting was held in advance of it starting at 3pm. We were directed to a spot to film from (the only time out of this series of meetings this happened) and told if it was good enough for ITV Granada (who had according to a plaque on the way in had been awarded Freedom of Entry by Liverpool City Council) then it should be good enough for us. A socket was provided for electricity, but not required as we use batteries.

However when the meeting was held filming from this spot involved filming straight into direct sunlight due to the west-facing windows on the other side of the room (therefore from a technical perspective unprofessional and problematic). Filming from this spot into direct sunlight also caused our batteries to run out six times faster than usual. After the friction earlier, we frankly didn’t have the will left to quibble over what location we filmed the meeting from and although an alternative location was suggested, this was ruled out by us on access grounds (which as one of the councillors arrived in a wheelchair we were proved right).

Before the meeting started there was a loud noise of sawing from outside the room which thankfully stopped by the time the meeting started but was somewhat unnerving.

We were put in an alcove of the room, which affected sound quality. Sound quality during the meeting itself was also affected by background noise from other parts of the building as a nearby door was left open (later shut during the meeting).

An agenda and reports for the meeting were requested (they have a legal duty to supply them) but we were told that there were no copies for the public, but that if a councillor didn’t turn up we could have the copy (which did happen a few minutes before the meeting started which gives little time to read it in detail).

Although some councillors used their microphones correctly during the meeting itself, others did not. One councillor arrived approximately half an hour late.

WiFi was available, but not known about in advance. Although a plus, during the meeting itself, this was referred to as a negative by a councillor who felt that the use of mobile phones or tablets during public meetings by officers and councillors was unprofessional and disrespectful to the meeting as it gave the public and press the impression that they weren’t paying attention to what was going on.

Strange accents of councillors during the meeting itself were at times hard to follow. However this is probably due to our unfamiliarity with the various Liverpudlian dialects rather than a problem per se.

The meeting itself was at times bad-tempered and there seemed to be the impression given of the Labour Group of councillors picking on a councillor from another political group during the public meeting itself during the last agenda item. The fine line between party politics and politician seemed to be somewhat blurred at Liverpool City Council. In fact the councillor who was not from the Labour Group who was subjected to this, looked so upset that I thought he was about to walk out of the meeting before it came to an end.

There was crosstalk at times during the meeting and an atmosphere that was not conducive to good decision-making.

Some councillors were unaware or misinformed (by the statements they made) as to some of the detail as to what they were discussing on the filming item due to (in part) deficiencies and omissions in what an officer/s had provided them in the paperwork for the meeting.

We were both glad when the meeting ended and we left and have no current desire to go back to a place that seemed to not make us feel welcome (although I’m not sure whether that was the intent behind their actions)!

Footage of this meeting can be viewed below.

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So what’s been happening with the filming public meetings law (Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014)?

So what’s been happening with the filming public meetings law (Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014)?

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)

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)

So what’s been happening with the filming public meetings law (Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014)?

                           

I’ve written before about the law going through Parliament about filming public meetings. Sadly when it comes to the House of Commons and House of Lords nothing seems to happen quickly! Here’s a quick recap of what’s happened so far. The Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 became law on the 30th January 2014. Sadly this issue wasn’t dealt with through primary legislation, but s. 40 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 gives the Secretary of State (Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP) the power to make regulations about the filming issue. S. 49(2) of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 meant that the power given to the Secretary of State to lay regulations came into effect two months after the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 became law (30th March 2014).

Shortly after this date, on the 3rd April the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP (you will need to scroll down to the section marked Appendix for the right point) laid the draft Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations along with a draft Explanatory Memorandum.

S. 43(3) of the Local Audit and Accountability Act required that such regulations “may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament”. So the draft Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 don’t have the force of law until a motion to approve them has happened in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Standing orders mean that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (which comprises both Members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords) must assess every statutory instrument to check that the draft regulations are in line with the power under an Act of Parliament granted to the Minister to make them. Since the draft regulations were laid, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has met twice.

At its meeting on 7th May 2014 it considered regulations such as the “European Union (Definition of Treaties) (Convention on International Interests in Mobile Equipment and Protocol thereto on matters specific to Aircraft Equipment) Order 2014”, “Licensing Act 2003 (FIFA World Cup Licensing Hours) Order 2014”, “Submarine Pipe-lines (Electricity Generating Stations) (Revocation) Regulations 2014”, “Public Gas Transporter Pipe-line Works (Environmental Impact Assessment) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2014”, “Central African Republic (European Union Financial Sanctions) Regulations 2014” and “Protection of Wrecks (Designation) (England) Order 2014” but sadly not the draft Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014.

At the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments’ meeting on the 14th May 2014 it considered regulations such as the “Annual Tax on Enveloped Dwellings (Indexation of Annual Chargeable Amounts) Order 2014”, “African Legal Support Facility (Legal Capacities) Order 2014”, “Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment and Consequential Provisions) (England) Order 2014”, “Civil Legal Aid (Financial Resources and Payment for Services) (Amendment) Regulations 2014”, “Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (Over the Counter Derivatives, Central Counterparties and Trade Repositories) (Amendment) Regulations 2014”, “Marine Licensing (Application Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2014”, “Plant Health (England) (Amendment) Order 2014” but again not the draft Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014.

Sadly the House of Lords can’t approve the draft Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 before the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments have met and reported on it. Since the draft regulations the Department for Communities and Local Government have produced a draft Councils and other local bodies – filming and reporting their meetings, knowing what they do: your rights (A guide for local people) guide which the Department for Communities and Local Government asked for comments on by a date shortly after the local election results being announced last month.

On the 7th May the House of Commons agreed that the following MPs (Adam Afriyie (Conservative, Windsor), Mike Crockart (Lib Dem, Edinburgh West), Mr Jim Cunningham (Labour, Coventry South), Nick de Bois (Conservative, Enfield North), Jim Fitzpatrick (Labour, Poplar and Limehouse), Robert Flello (Labour, Stoke-on-Trent), Mike Freer (Conservative, Finchley & Golders Green), John Healey (Labour, Wentworth & Dearne), Kate Hoey (Labour, Vauxhall), Susan Elan Jones (Labour, Clwyd South), Brandon Lewis (Conservative, Great Yarmouth), Robert Neill (Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst), Claire Perry (Conservative, Devizes), Andy Sawford (Labour, Corby), David Simpson (Democratic Unionist, Upper Bann), Mrs Caroline Spelman (Conservative, Meriden), Craig Whittaker (Conservative, Calder Valley) and Simon Wright (Lib Dem, Norwich South) make up the Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee (Draft Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014).

On the 12th May the makeup of the Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee (Draft Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014) was changed slightly. Simon Wright (Lib Dem, Norwich South) was discharged from membership of the committee. When the Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee (Draft Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014) meets, it will vote on the motion “The
Committee has considered the instrument” and ninety minutes will be given to debate it. The Government always votes in favour of these types of motion and as the committee comprises of 8 Conservative MPs, 7 Labour MPs, 1 Lib Dem MP and 1 Democratic Unionist MP such a motion will be agreed.

The Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee considered the Draft Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 on the 6th May and made these comments on it and the draft Explanatory Memorandum:

“35. In the Explanatory Memorandum (EM) to these draft Regulations, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) says that they give greater rights to report at open meetings of local government bodies, by filming, photographing, audio-recording or any other means. DCLG comments that local people will be able to film, make audio-recordings and provide written commentaries during a meeting and provide oral commentaries outside the meeting, allowing those who are unable to attend the meeting to follow the proceedings. The Regulations also require a written record of certain decisions made by officers of such bodies.

36. DCLG states that it did not undertake formal consultation on the Regulations, but that they were the subject of an informal soundings exercise with the Local Government Association (LGA), Lawyers in Local Government, the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives. All but the last-named of these submitted comments, as did a number of other interested organisations, and a member of this House.

37. DCLG’s account of the outcome of the soundings exercise identifies no unequivocal support for the Regulations. For example, the LGA opposed them and commented that “the Government’s approach, as set out in the draft Regulations, appears completely contrary to the principles of Localism and is in fact micro-management of the sector.” While the NALC supported the objective of transparency, it raised concerns (in common with other respondents) that some provisions in the Regulations, such as filming or recording a meeting, and recording and publishing decisions taken by officers, would have significant detrimental, costly and disproportionate effects on local councils.

38. The Department has not been persuaded by these concerns. As is made clear in the EM, it holds to the belief that “localism requires robust local scrutiny and local accountability”, and that “allowing the public to attend and report meetings promotes health democracy and should not be seen as an intrusion [which does not create] burdens on the councils or local government bodies.” We note that much of the EM consists of similar declarations; we would urge the Department to bear in mind that EMs are intended to provide explanation, not exhortation.

39. DCLG proposes to bring the Regulations into force on the day after which they are made. In the EM, the Department refers to Ministerial statements and press notices which have set out the importance of allowing filming and the use of social media in their meetings. While it refers to two specific press notices, we understand that there have been no Ministerial Statements to Parliament about the Regulations. As an instrument subject to affirmative resolution, the Regulations will be debated in the House: this will provide the Department with an opportunity to explain its intentions to Parliament, as well as to the recipients of its press releases.

So, the draft Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations will probably become law at some point this month, let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later!

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

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

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

                          

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

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

23rd December 2013

Dear Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP,

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is fair to say that people should not be able to disrupt meetings. At the same time, however, we must get the balance right, as the regulations will, and we shall talk to the LGA about that. We must make sure that an authority does not use disruption as an excuse to stop people filming a meeting in a non-disruptive sense”, later he also said,

“That is why we will liaise with partners to make sure that the regulations are correct. We want to make sure that meetings are not disrupted, but, equally, that disruption cannot be used as an excuse to block fair and proper transparency. It is the inconsistent and unjustifiable excuses that councils occasionally use to refuse public access that we want the clause to address. Our intention is to make regulations that require local government bodies, including their committees, sub-committees and joint committees, to allow people to film, photograph, tweet and blog at their public meetings.”

In reference to the future regulations he said,”They may also specify that government bodies may reasonably ask for the filming or photographing to be done in such a way that they are not disruptive to the good order and conduct of the meeting.” and also “the Government intend to work with the LGA and the National Association of Local Councils to cover the detail of the regulations.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,

John Brace

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

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

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

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

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

DCLG Contact Us Team.

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Cross party support for new legislation on filming Council meetings (in England)

Cross party support for new legislation on filming Council meetings (in England)

Cross party support for new legislation on filming Council meetings (in England)

                               

The Local Audit and Accountability Bill progresses through the House of Commons. The Local Audit and Accountability Bill Committee on Thursday 21st November 2013 discussed the new clause to be added to the bill about filming of local Council meetings. New clause 4 is a new clause added to the bill about filming. As there’s quite a bit of interest, both on the Wirral and further afield about this issue, I’m including below (from Parliament’s website) what was said on this issue.

Once the Local Audit and Accountability Bill becomes law, the provisions on filming in it will require a further statutory instrument to be agreed before they become a legal requirement on local Councils (which hopefully will also repeal some of the legislation that’s been used to prevent filming too).

Below is the text of what was said in the Local Audit and Accountability Bill Committee on the 21st November. The text below contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v1.0.

The Chair:

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment 134.

Government new clause 4—Access to local government meetings and documents.

Government amendment 135.

Brandon Lewis:

The amendments give greater rights to the public to access or report on local government meetings and documents. Before I talk about the details, I want to thank the hon. Member for Corby and his colleague, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), for supporting the instructions to the Committee to allow us to widen the scope of the Bill in order to debate the amendments. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the amendments. I appreciate our conversations outside the Committee.

New clause 4 gives the Secretary of State the power to make regulations about the public’s access to the meetings and documents of local government bodies. Transparency and openness can be achieved only when people, including citizens and professional journalists, have adequate rights to attend their local government bodies’ meetings. Public meetings of local government bodies should be fully accessible to those who cannot attend in person, so that the public can hold those bodies to account.

We are introducing this measure because openness is an issue that fundamentally affects the lives of communities. We have already introduced greater transparency and openness to the meetings of the council’s executive, its committees and sub-committees through the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012.

Although the regulations give local people more rights to attend meetings of the council’s executive and to access information relating to decisions made in those meetings, the same rights do not extend to the meetings of full council, its committees, sub-committees and joint committees, parish and town councils, and other local government bodies. On top of this, in recent months, there have been some disgraceful incidents when members of the public have been ejected from meetings simply for trying to film them.

For example, a council we have all talked about a great deal in the past couple of weeks, Tower Hamlets, barred a 71-year-old resident from filming owing to the risk of

“reputation damage to the authority”.

Keighley town council blocked residents from filming, because it would have been a

“breach of standing orders”.

Stamford town council banned journalists from tweeting at meetings owing to the risk of their

“not accurately portraying a debate.”

If we were all banned from tweeting across the Chamber, life would be somewhat less interesting, as we saw yesterday.

When I was a council leader in 2005, I introduced the webcasting of all meetings, and we noticed how the community can really benefit. On a cold winter’s night, if a member of the public is interested in a particular part of what can be a very long council meeting and they do not necessarily know which issues will take longest, instead of having to come along and sit through one hour to five hours of a meeting for an issue that could be at the back end of it, the member of the public can sit at home and watch it at their leisure. Also, in our system, they can send questions and messages if they wish. It opens up democracy to the public in a more accessible way in the modern world.

We now live in a digital world where the use of modern communication methods, such as filming, tweeting and blogging are widely embraced. There is no reason why such communication methods should not be welcomed, particularly for enhancing the openness of local government bodies.

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab):

Will the Minister outline whether any codes of practice should be adopted? The measure could be used in an unhelpful way. I support the notion of people being allowed to record and film in council meetings. Indeed, when I was leader of Derby city council, I set up the webcasting of our council meetings. It is important to have greater access, but will we have a code of practice to prevent abuse taking place?

Brandon Lewis:

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. It is good that, as we saw on Second Reading, there is agreement throughout the House on the importance of transparency and how it can be beneficial. It is fair to say that people should not be able to disrupt meetings. At the same time, however, we must get the balance right, as the regulations will, and we shall talk to the LGA about that. We must make sure that an authority does not use disruption as an excuse to stop people filming a meeting in a non-disruptive sense.

I was shown an example on YouTube. A council somehow managed to “lose” the recording of a council meeting that was webcast on the internet. The council had the embarrassing situation that the chairman of a panel did not like what was going on and decided to leave. However, he had not actually ended the meeting, so somebody else took the chair and carried on. Amazingly, that disappeared from the webcast, but somebody videoed the meeting on their own camera, and they put it on YouTube. Nothing particularly exciting was going on, but the point is that if members of the public are allowed to film—I am not sure anybody knew this person was filming at the time—we can make sure that transparency survives.

I do take the hon. Gentleman’s points on board. That is why we will liaise with partners to make sure that the regulations are correct. We want to make sure that meetings are not disrupted, but, equally, that disruption cannot be used as an excuse to block fair and proper transparency. It is the inconsistent and unjustifiable excuses that councils occasionally use to refuse public access that we want the clause to address. Our intention is to make regulations that require local government bodies, including their committees, sub-committees and joint committees, to allow people to film, photograph, tweet and blog at their public meetings.

The regulations may also specify that any persons attending a meeting for the purpose of reporting the proceedings should inform the relevant body of their intention before filming or photographing—the important word there is “inform”. They may also specify that government bodies may reasonably ask for the filming or photographing to be done in such a way that they are not disruptive to the good order and conduct of the meeting.

Allowing local people to attend and report on meetings of local government bodies will help them to understand the local decision-making process and empower them to be involved in making decisions that affect our lives.

Amendment 130 requires the regulations to be subject to the affirmative procedure when amending primary legislation. That will give both Houses of Parliament the opportunity to debate the regulations before approving them through resolution. Where they amend secondary legislation, the negative procedure will be used.

Amendment 134 specifies that the power to make regulations will come into force two months after the Bill has been passed, as is the usual practice. As I said, the Government intend to work with the LGA and the National Association of Local Councils to cover the detail of the regulations.

Amendment 135 simply updates the Bill’s long title to reflect the inclusion of new clause 4.

Andy Sawford:

We support the clause. We were pleased to support the Government’s extending the scope of the Bill and introducing these provisions.

I read the 1988 debate about televising the House of Commons, and I noted Members’ sincerely held concerns that it could fundamentally change the character of the House of Commons and the way in which debates took place, and concerns that those changes to the way our Parliament functioned could harm our democracy. What Member of the House of Commons today would argue against televising the House of Commons?

Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con):

There are some. [Laughter.]

Andy Sawford:

One Member says there may be some, but I think there would be near-unanimity in the House of Commons that filming is the right thing for our democracy and that it is right for the public to see what we get up to. Even if we do not always give the best account of ourselves in the public’s eye, they can at least see the debates that take place, including in Select Committees and other forums around Parliament.

I have a confession to make, although I hope it will not come as a surprise to this particular group of hon. Members, with their experience of local government—many of them have been local councillors. I have availed myself of the webcasting my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North and the Minister introduced in their local authorities. During my research as a member of the Local Government Information Unit I did that to look at debates in not only my own local authority, but other local authorities around the country. Although I recognise that the viewership of local council webcasts is often quite small, the fact that they are there and that the public can see what is happening in their local council chamber is a source of strength for our system of local democracy and local government around the country. We should note, however, as I did when I was reading the 1988 debate, that there was some difference of view between longer-serving Members of the House of Commons at that time and a newer generation of Members who had more recently entered Parliament. The same could be said of councils around the country, and I note that two of the smaller parish councils were highlighted by the Minister as recent examples of where there had been a problem. We are aware that diversity is increasing in local government, and we would all hope to encourage that, but we are also aware that the generation that is leading the world of blogging and the use of online media is not as well represented in local government as those for whom that new world may be something of a challenge to their way of operating in the local council chamber.

In communicating that to local authorities around the country—I am sure that the Minister will agree with this sentiment—I hope that we would not, in any way, try to beat local councils over the head for not having already embraced the change, but rather that we would communicate with them persuasively about why this is a good thing in their local chambers, and why they should move quickly to ensure that they fully comply with the clause as it is introduced.

I want to add something to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North made, and I thought the Minister’s response was welcome. We all want to ensure that the risk of disruption is minimised. For example, concerns have been put to me that a member of the public, because of their view about one particular member of the authority, could focus all their filming on that member even though the member may not be actively speaking or participating in the debate at a given time. That, in itself, may be something that an elected member of a local council might just have to grin and bear, but there is a point about fair and appropriate conduct by members of the public when they are in the council chamber.

However, the Minister struck the right tone, as I am sure my hon. Friends would agree, in indicating that the bar would be high on disruption, and that it should not be used as an excuse by a local authority not to open up their proceedings properly. With that welcome assurance from the Minister, and in the knowledge that he will consult on and develop guidance in order to implement the provision, I welcome the clause, which enjoys the Opposition’s support.

Brandon Lewis:

I knew there would come a point in the Committee when I and the hon. Member for Derby North agreed wholeheartedly. It had to happen. We got there eventually, as I shall no doubt tweet later today.

On a more serious note, there is just one other point to make. I agree with everything that has been said, and I appreciate the support. It is important that local government and the public see that there is cross-party support for opening things up and ensuring that there is transparency, which, importantly, local government should embrace. The hon. Member for Corby is right about how we put the message across to local government. What I say to local government and put on the record is that this is not only about ensuring that there is transparency, so that the public can see what is going on and how councils spend money. As important as that is, local government should see this as a chance for great councillors around the country to show the good work that they are doing and how hard they work for their communities. Therefore, it is a positive step for them.

Amendment 130 agreed to.

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