Last month we heard that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has promised to give bloggers, journalists and the public the right to film and report on council meetings in law – thanks to this post by Mike Rawlins at Talk About Local.
Mr Pickles told Parliament on the 28th of October that he intends to amend the Local Audit and Accountability Bill so that it will include a law to force councils in England to permit the filming and reporting of all public meetings in the council chamber. The news is the last in a long line of attempts by Mr Pickles to persuade and now force local authorities to allow the filming of meetings by members of the public, following a number of high-profile cases where citizens were ejected from meetings or prevented from filming.
What does this mean?
The law won’t come into effect for some time – Mr Pickles was only stating that he intends to put this new power into the Bill, which was being debated in the Commons following its time in the Lords. But we know it will likely affect all council meetings in England (at the least, district, county and unitary authorities).
“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.”
The Opposition has supported the proposed amendment, so we can expect Mr Lewis’s intention of ‘closing the loophole’ will be acted on in due course. Previous pronouncements by the Sec. of State on this issue haven’t been taken that seriously, largely because Mr Pickles seemed to have stopped short of changing the law. But as we reported a while ago, he had already mooted the idea of doing just that if councils didn’t change their ways.
The devil’s in the detail
We don’t yet know what the amendment will look like (and a query I made to CLG hasn’t yet been answered), so I guess some councils will wait to find out more before deciding if there is any need to act. Meanwhile, others are taking up the fight for filming – with Richard Horsman’s article in the Guardian making a very good argument that permitting filming is necessary anyway. Talk About Local’s excellent lobbying on behalf of local bloggers is also worth keeping an eye on – see the crowdmap that Sarah Hartley has created.
How might this affect councils?
We’ve made the argument, repeatedly, that allowing citizens to film and record council meetings is absolutely to be welcomed – and as we have said before our clients are already making sure that meetings are available to watch – and that there is a check-able digital record of what happens. But there are obviously some unanswered questions about what the legislation will mean – and how councils can ensure that they are meeting their future obligations. I’m pretty sure it’ll be an important topic of discussion for our next user group – on the 6th of December at the Hallam Conference Centre. I’ll blog soon about this properly, but if you’d like to come please just email Jane or give us a call on the usual number (that’s 01273 821 282)!