Draft Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Fergus Reid, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
These regulations are part of a series of measures based on the Localism Act 2011 and the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 which the coalition Government enacted to protect local democracy, enhance local scrutiny and create 21st-century local accountability. Specifically, the regulations enhance the rights of the press and public to report council meetings using digital and social media. They also enhance the rights of people who want to know what decisions are being taken by council officers on behalf of elected members. That the public can readily know what the people they have elected to represent them are doing is the lifeblood of democracy—that is fundamental and has long been recognised as such. It was Baroness Thatcher who introduced the right for the press and public to attend and report council meetings, back in 1960, through a successful private Member’s Bill that she introduced in her maiden speech. However, a well-functioning democracy is not something set in stone. It has to keep pace and be flexible to move with the way people live their lives, the way they communicate and how they share and discuss information.
The use of digital and social media runs through our daily life now. If the Government are to be true to the legacy of Baroness Thatcher, the rights that were given to people in 1960 to report and access council meetings must be updated to encompass the digital world of Twitter and Facebook that we live in today. When we sought views about these regulations, the Local Government Association stated that it did
The Government do not accept that. While some councils have embraced social media, there are examples of other councils that have ejected members of the public from meetings or even threatened them with arrest for trying to report council meetings using digital media. This cannot happen in a modern democracy and those councils do not stand true to the principles of openness. The regulations before us today will ensure that that can no longer happen and will ensure that local democracy is on a modern footing.
The regulations amend existing legislation to put beyond doubt the rights of the public to film, record sound and use social media to report public meetings of their local council. The regulations also cover other
Nearly two years ago, the coalition made the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012, which for the first time opened up the meetings of an executive to filming and reporting by social media. The regulations before us today simply extend what we achieved for council executives in 2012 to all meetings of a council. The 2012 regulations also gave the public rights to see a written record of decisions that officers take on behalf of the council’s executive. The regulations we are considering also extend those rights to decisions that officers take on behalf of the council or any of its committees or sub-committees. Specifically, when a council or one of its committees delegates to officers decisions that affect the rights of individuals; grant a permission or licence; incur expenditure or award a contract that would have a material impact on the financial position of the council or local government body, there must be a record of the decision the officer takes.
In the Adjournment debate in the House last night, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) outlined why it is so important that people can see exactly what decisions are made and what the impact on them can be. The record of the decision will include the reason for it, any alternative options considered or rejected, and any other background documents. That will mean there is transparency and openness in how these bodies make the decisions that significantly affect the lives of those in their communities.
These important rights will ensure that our local democracy is fit for purpose, not just today but in the world of tomorrow. To ensure that these rights are smoothly and effectively introduced and recognised everywhere, my Department has worked with the local government sector to develop a “plain English guide” which has been published in draft form on the Government website. If Parliament approves the regulations, a final version of the guide will be published to accompany them. The guide covers what the new rights mean for the public, members and officers and will incorporate and extend the plain English guide that we published in 2013, following the 2012 regulations, entitled, “Your council’s cabinet: going to its meetings, seeing how it works”. The guide will cover a range of matters and, in particular, will make it clear that nothing in the regulations will impact on the chairman’s power to exclude members
If Parliament approves the regulations, we will draw that to the attention of the bodies affected or their representative associations as soon as practically possible and undertake that the Secretary of State will not make the regulations until at least 28 days after parliamentary approval is given. With that undertaking, and our having published the draft version of the plain English guide, local government bodies will have sufficient time to familiarise themselves with the provisions if the regulations receive parliamentary approval and we will have an early indication of any practical issues that may arise.
Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I would be reassured if the Minister would enlighten the Committee as to whether the measures will cover meetings of the Local Government Association and similar organisations.
Brandon Lewis: It will not cover the LGA. That is not an official local government body. It will cover all local councils—parish councils, town councils—but not the LGA. That organisation is funded and arranged by local government itself rather than being a decision-making body for the public.
People will be more readily able to see and know who they are electing and what those people are doing. That is good for democracy and for elected members, because it means they get a chance to show the public the great work they do in town halls across the country. It is certainly good for our communities, for local government and for the vital services that councils provide, and will ensure people’s confidence through transparency and understanding. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. The Minister and shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford), who is unable to be here, agreed during the passage of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 that the Government would bring forward these powers to ensure that the public can film, blog or tweet at all meetings of a full council, its committees and sub-committees that they can attend. As the Minister points out, this is about bringing local democracy up to speed with today’s fast-moving digital age.
Most local authorities are embracing new technology and greater transparency. In Durham, the county council has very active Facebook and Twitter feeds, followed by thousands of local residents. I had a look yesterday morning. Those feeds have recently promoted and shared information about new jobs, the commencement of roadworks with a useful map, and the new state-of-the-art multi-sensory room at Spennymore leisure centre. Those new communication channels enable local authorities to speak quickly and directly to their local communities.
Over recent years we have seen local authorities experiment with new ways of broadcasting council meetings, such as live streaming video or audio, using Twitter to post updates and uploading transcripts online. While the number of people watching those webcasts may be small, the audience online is significantly higher than in the meeting room itself and it has the power to grow exponentially. A retweet or a shared Facebook post expands the potential reach of that piece of information by tens or hundreds with just one click.
Of course, not every authority will feel it has the capacity or budget to purchase webcasting or recording equipment, especially when councils are facing the biggest cuts of anyone in the public sector. According to figures released yesterday by the LGA, local authorities are now facing a £5.8 billion shortfall over the next two years, leaving many councils, according to Sir Merrick Cockell, on a knife edge. Many local authorities are struggling to deliver their statutory services so it is right that we give powers to the public to film and record council meetings rather than making it mandatory that councils do it themselves.
While we are broadly in support of the direction that the Government are taking, there are a few areas that I would like the Minister’s assurances on. He has compared this piece of legislation to the introduction of cameras into the House of Commons, but that is not entirely accurate. When we sit in the Chamber or, indeed, in Committee Rooms, we can be pretty much certain that we are not having pictures or videos taken of us. Indeed, members of the public are banned from even taking a phone into the public gallery of the House of Commons. There are certain rules for recording in both Houses, but not all of those rules will exist in the town hall.
For example, what if someone wanted to film a meeting using a big camera and wanted to set up the tripod, perhaps a spotlight to improve visual quality and maybe even a boom to stretch out further into the room to better pick up the sound? In many town halls space in the public gallery is tight. What does the Minister expect to happen in such a circumstance? The instrument says:
Can the Minister give us some examples of what might be classed as reasonable or unreasonable? What does the Minister think might happen if the filming or recording was focused on one particular member to intentionally damage their reputation?
The Minister said in a written ministerial statement last week that he will soon be sending local authorities a draft version of a new plain English guide, which he mentioned again this morning. I am sure councils would
We know that there will be some rough edges that need ironing out as these powers settle in. There will be unforeseen issues that will require sensible, reasoned solutions. In general though, Mr Dobbin, we will not oppose the legislation. We believe that in the vast majority of cases, the new powers will be introduced with common sense and respect and will generally improve reporting of and engagement with democracy, particularly at a local level.
Brandon Lewis: I will try to deal with all the points that the hon. Lady has raised. She is quite right; not all councils—certainly not parish councils or some of the smaller bodies—have that kind of webcasting equipment. It is slightly different from the House of Commons, where everything we do is recorded and broadcast. Indeed, on her point about recording being focused on an individual member, that is exactly what happens when we are speaking in the House of Commons.
Gordon Birtwistle (Burnley) (LD): I may have missed this. Would members of the council be able to use Twitter and social media while the meeting is going on? I am a councillor in Burnley and the first thing the mayor does at the beginning of a meeting is to tell everyone to switch off all phones and everything like that; they are totally banned. Will council members now be able to use social media during council meetings?
Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. As I said in my opening remarks, councillors should not be anything other than excited that this gives a chance for more people to see more of the great work they are doing in councils across the country. Yes, under the regulations, councillors will be able to tweet or blog and use the same powers that any other member of the public can. The only proviso is that we would—as would the chair of any council meeting, quite rightly—expect councillors to be paying full attention and to take part fully in any debate. It is a judgment call for the councillor and, indeed, the council over whether tweeting and blogging during the meeting detracts from councillors’ ability to do their job. There is a point where we have to trust people to be adult and sensible about what they are doing, and trust the council to take a reasonable view about that.
On the question of unnecessary burdens and reasonable facilities, we do not expect local government bodies to provide members of the public with equipment such as laptops or cameras. People attending meetings of their local government bodies with the aim of filming, audio recording or taking photographs are expected to come with their own equipment and it has to be reasonable. The local authority or body still has the ability to take a sensible decision if something becomes too intrusive in the meeting, which is why I would expect those people to be based in the public area.
We expect people who want to film or take photographs in public meetings to be considerate. At the same time, local government bodies should not consider such activities
Some councils already have webcasting equipment. I remember being webcast when I was a council leader in about 2005. The hon. Lady is right; it allows more people to have access to what a council is doing. I was rather surprised to receive e-mails from people in America who, for some reason, had taken a great interest in our district council’s movements and decisions. That is a good thing. The measure is just taking that to the level where the public have the right to report what is happening in a meeting.
I must be clear in answer to the question of the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. The regulations do not apply to some non-public formal bodies. If he wants to see which bodies are covered, he can look at the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014, which makes it clear that the regulations only apply to formal local government bodies; they are listed in section 40(6).
Before summing up, I have to pick up on a couple of the comments made by the hon. Member for City of Durham. She may not be surprised that I highlight her comment around the LGA’s statement this week, which lacks some credibility, bearing in mind that it has been making the same claim year after year, yet every council has submitted balanced budgets. Having looked at what the LGA is basing its assumptions on, its forward assumptions are, at best, questionable. I have said before that to make a credible statement of this type, local authorities need to be away from their current position where they have a record level of about £19 billion in reserves—an increase on the previous year—more than £2 billion in fraud and error to deal with and £2 billion in uncollected council tax. The openness and transparency of local government is important. It is important to ensure that we have robust local accountability. That can only be truly achieved when the public have the right to attend, report on, understand and know about what happens in all public meetings.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: Will the Minister deal with the specific issue I raised about focus on one particular member of the council? The parallel in the Houses of Parliament is that we are all recorded; everything we say is recorded in the same way. I raised a point about the week in, week out or month in, month out specific selective recording of one member of the council by a member of the public, which is then used to damage the reputation of that person. How will that be dealt with?
Brandon Lewis: I am struggling to understand how the hon. Lady sees that as an issue. Councillors have been elected to a public position and should be prepared to stand publicly for what they say and have it reported. I do not see a problem with an individual member being covered. However, if the hon. Lady is implying that intimidation is taking place, there are already laws available, and the council has powers over disruptive behaviour.
Councillors should embrace this measure. If councillors are not prepared to be open, clear and transparent with their residents about what they say and do, they should not be councillors in the first place. That is unlikely to be the case; in most of the country our councillors do a fantastic job every day of the year, working for their local residents. They should welcome this measure as a chance to show the public more of what they do.
The hon. Lady earlier made a point about her local newspaper. We are moving on with how the media work. More of those local newspapers are developing local websites. Some local newspapers—she noted her own—such as my local paper Great Yarmouth Mercury , have increased sales thanks to good journalism. That should not be a reason to stop the public being able to
Councils and other local bodies are entrusted to make decisions that significantly affect their residents and communities. We should all be clear about that representing good value for money. The regulations will ensure that every decision, whether taken in a full council meeting or in an unheard-of sub-committee, can be taken in the full glare not just of the press but any member of the public affected.