On the 25th of October 2013 the Minister for Local Government, Eric Pickles MP, announced a “new press freedom law to open up town halls”.
Very rapidly after that announcement, on Monday the 28th of October MPs in the House of Commons agreed to instruct the Local Audit and Accountability Bill Committee to add a provision to the bill covering “access to meetings and documents of local government bodies.”
(See motion 5 within Business Today: Chamber for Monday 28 October 2013).
Adding the new law to a bill which is already proceeding through parliament suggests it could come into force quite quickly.
While introducing the the proposal to require the new provision to be inserted in the bill Minister Brandon Lewis said:
On openness, we want to increase levels of transparency to make it harder for councils to make decisions out of the sight of those they serve—something hon. Members touched on this afternoon.
In particular, we want the public to be able to film, blog or tweet at all meetings where they are allowed to be present. Some councils are still refusing to allow people to do this, preventing local people from using modern technology to hold their elected representatives to account.
Councillors should not be shy about the public seeing the great work they do for their local communities. We have already legislated on this matter for meetings of a local authority executive.\
The new provisions will allow us to extend that level of openness to other council meetings, closing the loopholes that councils are using to refuse the public access.
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.
Local Audit and Accountability Bill Committee
Parliament’s webpage on the Local Audit and Accountability Bill states the Bill Committee will first meet on the 4th of November 2013 and will report by the 21st November 2013. The committee are currently accepting submissions of written evidence which appears to be a possible route to seek to influence the new law.
Mindful of the fact the argument for a provision appears to have been won, and we are now only discussing the detail of the new law, I have submitted the following:
November 1st 2013
- I regularly observe meetings of my local councils, and public meetings of other local government bodies such as my local Police and Crime Panel and Community Safety Partnership. I report, and comment, on proceedings on my website http://www.rtaylor.co.uk and via my twitter feed @RTaylorUK I also place photographs and videos of proceedings online using various services. Many of my videos are available via my YouTube page http://www.youtube.com/user/RTaylorUK
- This submission is in relation to the new provision covering access to meetings which the House of Commons has instructed this committee to add to the Local Audit and Accountability Bill.
- I would like to see a straightforward provision giving everyone a right to film, photograph, record and report on meetings, including reporting, and publishing material, live. The only restrictions I think ought apply are those which already apply to members of the public observing such as not being disruptive and having to leave if the meeting enters a private session. I would like to see a right to film, photograph, record etc. anything which a member of the public could observe if they attended the meeting in person.
- I would like to see the provision apply to as wide a group of public meetings as possible. In addition to local council meetings, I would like to see it apply, for example, to police and crime panels, clinical commissioning group board meetings and public meetings of partnerships involving local public bodies. I would like to see a broad definition used for “local government bodies”.
- The new provision ought make clear that the mere act of filming, photographing, recording or reporting a meeting cannot be deemed disruptive / disorderly. This could apply to all public meetings.
- The new provision must be robust enough such that public bodies cannot seek to restrict its effectiveness for example by banning the use of mobile phones, or laptops, in meetings.
- I have experienced the Sergeant at Mace (the officer responsible for keeping order) at my local council, Cambridge City Council, bounding up the stairs, in full regalia but without the mace, to the public gallery and ordering me not to photograph proceedings when I sought to take photograph from the gallery during a full council meeting.
- I have lobbied Cambridge City Council over the last few years to encourage them first to allow photographing and filming meetings, and latterly to remove some of the various restrictions they have sought, at various times, to impose on those filming or photographing proceedings.
- Some of the restrictions I have experienced imposed at Cambridge City Council include a ban on zooming and panning a camera, which made obtaining watchable footage challenging. The council’s rules were also interpreted by councillors and officers as requiring those filming full council meetings to leave their camera on the floor of the chamber while they sat in the public gallery. There was also, for a period, a requirement for those filming to hold a copy of the unedited footage for a period of four months.
- Even Cambridge City Council’s current requirements including filming being overt and notifying meeting chairs that filming is to take place can be very restrictive.
- I would like anyone to be able to take their phone out of their pocket and tweet, photograph and film proceedings if something of interest happens during the meeting, or if they simply want to record, and perhaps share, their experience. Even apparently minor requirements and restrictions such as to arrive early to notify the chair, or to take steps to ensure filming/recording actions are clearly overt can restrict people’s ability to spontaneously film/record and share proceedings.
- Councils and other bodies ought not be able to introduce local rules and restrictions undermining any new provision giving everyone a right to film/photograph and record meetings
- Journalists with integrity may not accept councillors telling them what they can, and cannot film. I would like to see unrestricted access to film and photograph what the public can see and hear council meetings in public. I think this may improve, and expand, the reporting of local government by the professional media as well as by the general public, including campaign groups.
- I have personally been deemed disruptive due solely to silently tweeting from the pubic seating while observing a meeting of Wisbech Town Council
- On the 26th of June 2013 I was asked to dismantle my camera by the chair of Huntingdonshire District Council when I sought to film a full council meeting there. I was given the impression the police were to be called when I declined to follow the chair’s direction. An article including my video from that day, and links to the subsequent press coverage, is available at http://www.rtaylor.co.uk/6092
- Huntingdonshire District Council has signs up at its meetings requiring mobile phones be turned off. Such a restriction would it hard for those whose phone is their only camera, mobile computer and video camera, to live tweet, photograph or film the meeting.
- Cambridgeshire County Council “encourages filming, recording and taking photographs at its meetings that are open to the public. It also welcomes the use of social networking and micro-blogging websites (such as Twitter and Facebook) to communicate with people about what is happening, as it happens.” http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/council/democracy/recordingofmeetings.htm
It would be excellent in my view if the new provision in law reflected this positive and encouraging tone.
- There has been some debate, and disagreement, within Cambridge City Council in recent years on the filming of members of the public making contributions to meetings under the council’s public speaking rules.
- While filming Cambridge City Council I have experienced one occasion where a public speaker complained to the council in relation to the fact he had been filmed after the meeting; and on another occasion a meeting’s chair stated a public speaker had asked not to be filmed.
- Making a contribution to a council meeting as a member of the public is not something which is, or can be, done in private. It is a very public action. It is common for those making statements at such meetings to find what they say being reported, sometimes they are quoted on the front page of the printed local paper. I do not think there ought be restrictions on filming, photographing or recording members of the public contributing to meetings. I think those filming or photographing a meeting ought be free to capture all that those present in person are able to see and hear.
- I have experienced members of the public contributing to meetings express dismay following an order from the chair that their contribution, and the response, cannot be filmed. At another meeting I experienced someone actively move in front of my camera so that their contribution was recorded on video.
- I do not think there’s any need to treat contributions from the public specially in the new provision.