Local government meetings: now the movie – or the crime scene?
New draft regulations have been published that, once in force, will allow the public greater rights to report at open meetings of local government bodies by filming, photographing, audio-recording or any other means. The regulations implement new rights under the new Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014, which the Communities Secretary promoted as "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".
The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 (SI 2012/2089) (the 2012 Regulations) specifically opened up councils’ executive meetings to the press and public except where exempt items were being discussed, but these provisions only applied to meetings of the executive and not to committee meetings or full council, nor to parish councils.
The Government tried to extend this requirement to all meetings and all council bodies through voluntary guidance, as “modern technology has created a new cadre of bloggers and hyper-local journalists, and councils should open their digital doors and not cling to analogue interpretations of council rules”. DCLG's June 2013 guide "Your council's cabinet: going to its meetings, seeing how it works" explained how local residents could attend and report their local council meetings, and explicitly encouraged councils to allow the public to film, blog and tweet all council meetings.
However, the Communities Secretary felt that, despite his call for councils to open their doors, "some have slammed theirs shut, calling in the police to arrest bloggers and clinging to old-fashioned standing orders”. The Government then introduced a new clause into the Local Audit and Accountability Bill (now s.40 of the 2014 Act) giving the Secretary of State a power to make regulations that may require local government bodies to allow members of the public the rights to attend all their public meetings and to have access to records relating to decisions taken by their officers.
The draft Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 amend the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960, s.100A of the Local Government Act 1972 and the 2012 Regulations so as to allow any person to attend a public meeting of a "relevant local government body" for the purposes of reporting, and allow any persons with the aim of reporting to use any communication methods, including the internet, to publish, post or otherwise share the results of their reporting activities, during or after the meeting.
"Relevant local government body" includes all English two-tier and unitary authorities, fire authorities, national park authorities, joint committees (such as Police and Crime Panels) and also parish councils.
‘Reporting’ is defined as:
The changes do not affect the current circumstances in which a private meeting may be held or a person may be excluded (for example, where exempt information would be disclosed or in the case of disorderly conduct).
The regulations also:
Officers may like to note that there is a criminal penalty for non-compliance: a person who has custody of documents which should be available for inspection, will commit an offence if that person refuses to disclose or intentionally obstructs the disclosure of such documents under these regulations.
The penalty for the offences is a fine not exceeding level 1 on the standard scale (currently £200). This replicates the existing penalty for failure to disclose or obstructing the disclosure of documents in the 2012 Regulations, and is in line with the sanctions under the 2012 Regulations. We are not aware of any prosecutions which have taken place, although quite a lot of 'local difficulty' about access to meetings was reported following the introduction of the 2012 Regulations.
The draft regulations have not been put out for general consultation, but DCLG has engaged in some informal discussion with the LGA, LLG, SOLACE and NALC on the wording. It considers that as the new requirements mainly mirror those in the 2012 Regulations, then they will not impose any significant additional burdens on local authorities.
The regulations are set to come into force "as soon as practicable". The Government considers that this is not a problem as the rights they give the public in relation to council meetings, are similar to the rights the public already have in relation to meetings of a council’s executive. The Government also considers that these regulations will require little or no preparatory work by bodies, even where these are not currently following good practices on transparency and openness.
It also intends to produce a Plain English Guide similar to the June 2013 guide, which will cover matters such as what would constitute ‘disruptive behaviour’ at a meeting, and the sort of decisions that officers would be required to record and publish.