Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Government moves ahead with new rights to film Council meetings

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has announced that a new law will be put before Parliament to give the press and public new rights to film and report council meetings, including those conducted by Lancaster City Council and Lancashire County Council.

The legal changes to be sent to Parliament by Mr Pickles will enshrine in the law the right of residents, bloggers and journalists to report, blog, tweet and film council meetings in England, which some councils have apparently tried to block.

The new laws will be part of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, which is set to be debated by MPs in the House of Commons on Monday, having completed its Lords stages.

The Bill will abolish the residual parts of the Audit Commission, protect local press from taxpayer-funded newspapers, and close legal loopholes so that council tax bills are fully accountable to local taxpayers.

Last year, the government changed secondary legislation to open up councils’ executive meetings to the press and public. However, this did not apply to councils’ committee meetings or full council, nor to parish councils. Mr Pickles asked councils to open up their committee meetings, but many councils are still not complying.

A recent report from the Tax Payers’ Alliance revealed a number of councils in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire who were still keeping democracy behind closed doors. Some councils had even banned local residents from recording, blogging and tweeting at council meetings.

In 2011, Jacqui Thompson (twitter link), author of the blog Carmarthenshire Planning Problems and More, was using her phone to record a meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council during an angry debate on the closure of a day club for local elderly people.

According to her blog, she was in the public gallery when the row over the day club broke out, and began filming proceedings. She was asked to leave by the council chairman who called the police when she refused. Ten minutes later, four police officers arrived and, as the New Statesman notes, she was arrested, handcuffed, marched to a police car, and then detained at a police station for two hours.

To make matters worse, the events led to a libel case and some very suspect activity using public money, events reported in detail here and here on the Broken Barnet blog as well as Jacqui's own site.
Ministers believe some councils are clinging to outdated analogue ideals in the face of a digital age.

“An independent local press and robust public scrutiny is essential for a healthy local democracy," argues Mr Pickles. "We have given councils more power, but local people need to be able to hold their councils to account.

“We are taking action against town hall Pravdas which are undermining the independent free press, but I want to do more to help the new cadre of hyper-local journalists and bloggers.

“I asked for councils to open their doors, but some have slammed theirs shut, calling in the police to arrest bloggers and clinging to old-fashioned standing orders. Councillors should not be shy about the good work that they do.

“This new right will be the key to helping bloggers and tweeters as well as journalists to unlocking the mysteries of local government and making it more transparent for all. My department is standing up for press freedom.”

In June, Eric Pickles published Your Council’s Cabinet a new guide for local residents explaining how they can attend and report their local council meetings. The new guidance explicitly stated that councils should allow the public to film, blog and tweet council meetings.

It explicitly stated that councillors and council officers can be filmed at council meetings, and corrects misconceptions that the Data Protection Act somehow prohibits this.
The Telegraph reported on the same day of the Guide's release that the Health and Safety Executive has also confirmed that ‘health and safety ‘regulations’ do not bar filming, which Wirral Council used to justify a filming ban last year.
The new guide also outlined the assorted rights that taxpayers’ have to access council papers and documents.

Bizarrely, despite the huge national coverage of Jacqui Thompson's case - she is still hoping to appeal libel judgement handed down on 15th March 2013 follow - the new proposals to allow public filming of council meetings don't apply to Wales.

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