Wednesday 10 August 2011

Fire Assessments (or lack of) and questions about the Undertaking

The Council have responded to the Photon's request for fire and safety assessments and procedures following the restricted access to the Public Gallery introduced on the 13th July. The response is here and Photon's excellent analysis is here. It appears that, in the event of a fire, members of the public in the gallery should wait, quietly sizzling on the well seasoned wooden benches until a sympathetic warden remembers to lead them to safety.

The bizarre and desperate measures, including the undertaking which the public are now required to sign, should be challenged at the next meeting of full council, if not by the councillors themselves then by those that object to having to agree to a policy that doesn't exist and who feel, as a matter of democratic principle, that they should have free unfettered access to the gallery.
I have asked the Council the following questions;

To; Head of Administration and Law
Carmarthenshire County Council

Dear Sir,

Please would you be kind enough to answer a few questions I have regarding the undertaking which members of the public are now required to sign before being allowed entry to the Public Gallery.If you are not the appropriate officer to ask then please pass this on to whoever is responsible. The undertaking I am referring to, of course, concerns filming and recording of public council meetings by the public.
As this refers to a course of action taken by the council I am sure you will agree that a Freedom of Information request is not appropriate in this instance.

1. Members of the public must promise not to film "until and unless the policy relating to this is reviewed by the Council". This is a very specific reference to a particular policy directly relating to filming. Could you please provide a link to the published policy to which you refer.

If there is no specific policy with direct reference to these activities, could you please explain on what basis the form of the undertaking was made?

2. Was any legal advice taken concerning the decision to issue the undertaking and if so was any of this advice specific to civil liberty and human rights issues? How does the undertaking satisfy the requirements of such legislation?

3. Could you please tell me who made the decision to introduce the undertaking? Whether it was by officers, members or a combination of both? Could you please provide, via email if possible, the date on which this was discussed, the minutes or notes to the meeting, and the names or titles of those present and the details of voting, if applicable.

4. Could you please explain how the terms of the undertaking would be enforced by the Council? If a member of the public signed the undertaking and then decided, in the interests of the wider electorate, to film part of a meeting, what course of action would the Council take? Particularly given the comments made by Dyfed Powys Police that this is not a matter for them and that a legally binding undertaking can only be issued on the orders of a court or as part of a condition of bail.

5. As the Information Commissioners Office has stated that, during an open public meeting filming would be very unlikely to breach data protection or privacy legislation, on what grounds exactly does the council object to filming?

6. As filming or recording is, by it's nature, a peaceful and silent activity, on what basis do the council have stating that this would equal the 'disruption' of a meeting. Please explain why the council considers it to be disruptive.

7. The first 'Core Value' in the Council's Improvement Plan is 'Openness' - How does this undertaking and the accompanying restrictions on access to the public gallery since July 13th support this principle?

I look forward to your acknowledgement of this email and prompt reply
Yours sincerely
J Thompson

I would also urge anyone else who wishes to attend the Public Gallery, but objects to signing the undertaking and the restricted access, to write to the council, or leave a comment below or attend County Hall at the next meeting of full council on the 14th September at 10am and express your concerns, and don't forget to bring a mobile phone.

I was reminded again the other day of the words of the Council solicitor at the planning meeting on the 31st March, (You Tube clip) in which he stopped me from filming, his actual words were;

"'s clearly stated in the Rules that there's no photographic [sic] or anything like that allowed in the Chamber.." (my underlining)

I would have thought that with his many years of attendance at Planning Committee meetings, he would have been more familiar with the 'rules', apparently not. Subsequent events have now, of course, been well documented.

UPDATE 30th AUGUST - Still no response from the Head of Administration and Law to my email.


Cneifiwr said...

I think we all know what the correct answers are, so it will be interesting to compare the truth (i.e. there is no policy) with the answer you get. My betting is that they will talk about practice rather than policy, and ignore some questions altogether.

In the interests of public safety, I think we should also start a new campaign to get persuade the council to make visitors read a full statement on fire procedures and health and safety before getting them to sign a slip confirming that they have read it.

Other statements and slips may also become necessary. For example, I wonder what council policy would be towards members of the public who bring their own fire extinguishers and breathing apparatus with them. Is sign language allowed? What is the dress code? What to do if you need to go to the loo? That last one could be very problematic, and you would certainly need to be escorted.

The list is endless. Perhaps it may be better to introduce a mandatory course and a licensing system for anyone wishing to observe meetings.....

Photon said...

If a Council cannot respond to these entirely reasonable and politely-put questions, then it is not clear what on earth they would respond to.

Yes, Mark James has now morphed the policy into a 'practice'. A practice means something that has been exercised in the past, so can we see any evidence that others have been ejected for filming?

Is there a rule against standing, rather than sitting? How about everyone stand and scribble notes wildly?

The lengths some council staff will go to to avoid accepting they are wrong is remarkable and worrying. With examples like this being set by the supposedly educated and very well-paid, what wonder that yobs are out on the street?

caebrwyn said...

The Council are behaving in a farcical manner. They have come up a ridiculous variety of reasons for introducing the strict measures;
- all councils in Wales do this (no they don't),
- necessary for fire precautions (that was inventive! but no they are not)
- Jacqui Thompson's 'fault' (no it isn't)
etc etc
Why does no one from the Council admit that it was their baseless statements and parochial, Victorian attitude that filming was so criminally outrageous that it required police intervention that has led to this predicament they find themselves in.
The Council have resorted to ridiculous excuses, contradictions, and a general state of denial, peppered with personal attacks - it's now time for apologies, investigation, debate, openness and some constructive reflection on the way they treat the people that pay their wages.
Sadly, experience tells me not to expect any clear, informative or helpful answers to my questions above, I hope the legal department (or whoever will 'moderate' the reply) will, for once, prove me wrong. That has yet to happen...ever.