In August 2012, Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP announced greater openness and transparency in executive councils meetings. Full announcement here.
Eric Pickles said:
"Every decision a council takes has a major impact on the lives of local people so it is crucial that whenever it takes a significant decision about local budgets that affect local communities whether it is in a full council meeting or in a unheard of sub-committee it has got to be taken in the full glare of all the press and any of the public.
Margaret Thatcher was first to pry open the doors of Town Hall transparency. Fifty years on we are modernising those pioneering principles so that every kind of modern journalists can go through those doors - be it from the daily reporter, the hyper-local news website or the armchair activist and concerned citizen blogger - councils can no longer continue to persist with a digital divide."
- New legal rights for citizen reporters: Local authorities are now obliged to provide reasonable facilities for members of the public to report the proceedings as well as accredited newspapers (regulation 4). This will make it easier for new ‘social media’ reporting of council executive meetings thereby opening proceedings up to internet bloggers, tweeting and hyperlocal news forums.
- Holding private meetings: In the past council executives could hold meetings in private without giving public notice. Where a meeting is to be held in private, the executive or committee must provide 28 days notice during which the public may make representations about why the meeting should be held in public. Where the notice requirements for a private meeting and an agreement of the chairman of the relevant overview and scrutiny committee or chairman of the relevant local authority has been obtained, the decision-making body must publish a notice as soon as reasonably practicable explaining why the meeting is urgent and cannot be deferred (regulation 5).
Bob Neill MP
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State
Department for Communities and Local
London SW1E 5DU
Tel: 0303 444 3430
Fax: 0303 444 3986
23 February 2011
To All Council Leaders
cc Monitoring Officers
Access to Meetings
As part of the Government’s transparency drive I want to highlight the
importance of your council giving citizens the opportunity to access and
experience their local democracy using modern communication methods. It is essential to a healthy democracy that citizens everywhere are able to feel that their council welcomes them to observe local decision-making and through modern media tools keep others informed as to what their council is doing.
The mainstream media also needs to be free to provide stronger local
accountability by being able to film and record in meetings without obstruction. Councils are now faced with important budget decisions affecting the day to day lives of people living and working in their communities. Council meetings have long been open to interested members of the public and recognised journalists, and with the growth of online film, social media and hyper-local online news they should equally be open to ‘Citizen Journalists’ and filming by mainstream media. Bloggers, tweeters, residents with their own websites and users of Facebook and YouTube are increasingly a part of the modern world, blurring the lines between professional journalists and the public.
There are recent stories about people being ejected from council meetings for blogging, tweeting or filming. This potentially is at odds with the fundamentals of democracy and I want to encourage all councils to take a welcoming approach to those who want to bring local news stories to a wider audience.
The public should rightly expect that elected representatives who have put
themselves up for public office be prepared for their decisions to be as
transparent as possible and welcome a direct line of communication to their electorate. I do hope that you and your colleagues will do your utmost to maximise the transparency and openness of your council. I do recognise that there are obligations on whoever is filming or publishing information – be it the council itself or a citizen or mainstream journalist – under the Data Protection Act 1998. But I do not see these obligations as preventing access for journalism. Nor are there grounds for any council seeking to obstruct a citizen or other journalist from processing information.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has told us that:
‘ In the absence of any other legal barrier to comment, publication,
expression and so on, the Act in and of itself would not prevent such
processing of information.
In the majority of cases the citizen blogging about how they see the
democratic process working is unlikely to breach the data protection
In the context of photographing or filming meetings, whilst genuine
concerns about being filmed should not be dismissed, the nature of the
activity being filmed – elected representatives acting in the public
sphere – should weigh heavily against personal objections’.
Moreover there are within the Act itself exemptions from the data protection principles which might apply in the circumstances of the citizen journalist. The first exemption relates to processing of information for journalistic purposes (section 32), the second for the processing of information for domestic purposes (section 36).
In short transparency and openness should be the underlying principle behind everything councils do and in this digital age it is right that we modernise our approach to public access, recognising the contribution to transparency and democratic debate that social media and similar tools can make.
I copy this letter to your monitoring officer given their responsibility for advising on your council’s procedures and decision-making arrangements.
Eric Pickles recently clarified via twitter the right to of the public to report film and tweet council meetings in England: