I observed Cambridgeshire’s Police and Crime Panel on the 3rd of February 2016. As a joint committee of the councils in the Cambridgeshire Police’s force area the Police and Crime Panel is open to the public under the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960.
As I approached the building where the meeting was to be held the locked front door was opened from the inside and an individual who wasn’t wearing any sort of corporate or individual identification spoke to me as follows:
Man at Door: Mr Taylor?
Richard Taylor: Hello.
Man at Door: You know you have to be out by four o’clock?
Richard Taylor: What?
Man at Door: You have to leave by four when the meeting ends.
Richard Taylor: I do?
Man at Door: Yes.
Richard Taylor: Specifically?
Man at Door: Yes.
Richard Taylor: What happens if the meeting carries on?
Man at Door: That meeting will be finished and this is a public meeting and then that will be ended at four and there’ll be another meeting.
Richard Taylor: Well I’ll take my direction from the chairman, and if the meeting continues I will stay as the public are entitled to do.
Man at Door: I’ve been told that you’ve got to be out by four o’clock.
Richard Taylor: Can you tell me who you are please?
Man at Door: I’m the caretaker.
Richard Taylor: Right
Man at Door: And if you’re not… I’ve been told that if you’re not out you’ll be told, you’ll be moved out.
Richard Taylor: Just the public?
Man at Door: All the public
Richard Taylor: Or just me?
Man at Door: All the public will be out?
And the meeting will …
Man at Door: No because it is a private meeting after four o’clock all right so you’ve got to be out after four. All right?
Richard Taylor: No. If the Police and Crime Panel continue the openness of …
Man at Door: Well that’s what I’ve been told.
Richard Taylor: Well can you, as you’ve got a couple of hours, can I suggest that you speak to whoever has told you that. There are access to public meeting laws. The Police & Crime Panel is a public meeting.
Man at Door: Yes it’s a public meeting. After the public meeting at four o’clock ends you got to go.
Richard Taylor: Absolute no, if the Police and Crime Panel continue to meet…
Man at Door: I’m not arguing with you.
Richard Taylor: I suggest in the next couple of hours…
Man at Door: Well I’ve been told already all right?
Richard Taylor: Well I suggest you obtain clarification.
Man at Door: I don’t care what you suggest. I suggest you leave at four o’clock. That’s the time you’re supposed to leave and if you’re not out you will be removed.
After I entered the meeting room I told Police & Crime Panel member Cllr Peter Reeve, who said hello, what I had experienced on the way in.
As it happened the meeting did go on past four o’clock and I was not removed. I found the episode stressful and distracting. While attempting to observe and report on the meeting I was worried about what would happen at four o’clock. I wondered if the threat to remove me would be acted upon.
After the meeting the same individual was standing outside the room, this time accompanied by a colleague. I asked if he had had time to consider what he had said to me on the way in. He said he hadn’t and refused to tell me his name when I asked.
In the spirit of trying to address the issue there and then I approached the council’s reception desk and explained what had happened and asked to speak to the person responsible for giving the directions to the man on the door. The receptionist did call someone but they didn’t come down to speak to me.
The reason I am publishing this experience is I want to see observing a public civic meeting to be a routine and easy experience.
While I’ve now experienced this kind of thing a few times it still comes as a surprise when it happens.
It was surprising that I was addressed by name by the man on the door. I am contemplating a FOI and/or subject access request for details of the instructions given to those officers acting as door-staff.
I think the Police and Crime Panel and Huntingdonshire District Council (the meeting venue) need to be more welcoming to members of the public. I am concerned that other people might well have followed the instruction to leave before the end of the meeting or even given up on trying to attend at all.