Sunday 23 October 2011

Accessing the Public Gallery; Welsh Minister responds

Some time ago I wrote to the Welsh Minister for Local Government, Mr Carl Sargeant asking if he could challenge the bizarre, undemocratic and restrictive entry procedures to the public gallery implemented by Carmarthenshire Council officers after the 8th June. Prompted when another member of the public was turned away from attending a meeting. I have now had a reply and I copy my email and Mr Sargeant's (or his representative's) response below.

Despite the fact that I did not specifically ask for his views on filming I welcome Mr Sargeant's promise of encouragement to all local authorities, including Carmarthenshire, to webcast their meetings. I would prefer the word 'requirement' rather than 'encouragement' though.
My opinion, of course differs from his over the right for the public to film and record meetings, I hope he will reconsider and issue similar guidance as in England.
Unfortunately, it all rather predicts the eventual decision of the petitions committee who recently made an appeal through the local press for views on allowing the public to film.

I am also disturbed by the use of the phrase 'need for security' in this context. Patently ridiculous.

It was the matter of access to meetings I was asking about and in that respect he clearly has no control over Carmarthenshire Council, in fact I would go as far as saying that the regime in County Hall will be delighted with his response and his overwhelming support. They couldn't have written it better themselves... I am very concerned that the Welsh Government appears to be giving Carmarthenshire Council the green light to ride roughshod over the residents of this county, this does not just apply to 'access to meetings' of course but the systematic erosion of democratic accountability in all it's various forms. The situation in Carmarthenshire needs to be challenged.

After the MP's expenses scandal it has become of paramount importance that government of all levels, elected members or unelected officers, is perceived as honest, accountable and transparent. It is on this sound basis that policy can be implemented. This should not be a matter of party politics. If Mr Sargeant's reluctance to embrace an agenda of complete transparency comes from a personal moral stance then that is his prerogative, even as a Labour man, but I am concerned that this is more to do with a reluctance to engage the 'transparency agenda' of the current Conservative government in London, led by Mr Pickles and even perhaps the opposition in the Senedd. I am of no political persuasion and am merely campaigning to improve the accountability of local government, it will be a pity if such basic rights of the electorate, such as being able to freely access the public gallery, are overshadowed by misguided political allegiances.

This was my email to Mr Sargeant;

"Dear Sir

I am hoping that by now you are aware of the actions of Carmarthenshire County Council in restricting access to the Public Gallery for visiting members of the public.
Prior to the 8th of June, the public could walk straight up to the public gallery unhindered, this is how it should be in a democratic society.
The external door is now locked. The public must now go to the reception desk, read a warning on 'recording meetings', sign an undertaking, acquire a pass then wait to be escorted by two members of staff to the Gallery. The exit is now blocked requiring visitors to phone an extension number and wait to be escorted out of the building, again by two members of staff. This has never been the case before the 8th June.
Freedom of Information requests have revealed that there have been no fire risk assessments nor fire drills carried out with regards to members of the public in the gallery.
I am sure you will agree that this situation cannot continue.
A member of the public was turned away from a Council meeting yesterday for refusing to sign the undertaking, the Assistant Chief Executive failed to give an explanation as to the lawful purpose of the undertaking, I believe the member of public has now written to several Assembly Members.
Carmarthenshire Council have given several reasons for implementing these measures, none of which are lawful. I myself have been turned away but have now signed the undertaking twice in a week. I am not going to sign again and I expect to be allowed in, along with other members of the public, and these ridiculous measures to be lifted.
There was no democratic decision but was an 'operational decision' taken by Council officers.
These measures are humiliating, undemocratic and pose a threat to the safety of the public, please could you contact Carmarthenshire County Council, via email/telephone urgently to question their motives and insist, on behalf of the residents of Carmarthenshire that all restrictions are lifted with immediate effect.Please could you make your own views on this matter known to me, including whether you yourself would be happy to comply with these restrictions and please pass on to me any correspondence you may have with the Council.
Many thanks for your time and if you require further information please do not hesitate to contact me.
Yours sincerely
Jacqui Thompson"

...and this was the reply;

"Dear Mrs Thompson

Carmarthenshire Council access to public gallery.Thank you for your e-mail of 15 September sent to Carl Sergeant AM, Minister for Local Government and Communities. I have been asked to reply.
Local authorities are obliged to allow the public entry to council meetings, unless the issues being discussed are considered to be exempt (in the main, confidential or commercial matters)
Our understanding of the issues at Carmarthenshire Council is that they have had cases of filming by members of the public, which had not been agreed to by the Council and of which members were not aware. The view of Carl Sergeant AM, whose remit this falls under is that councillors nor anyone else should be filmed without being aware or having given their consent for this to happen.

The process that a local authority follows to allow public access to meetings is a matter for them, as they have to take into account the need for security in today’s society.

Welsh Government Policy is to support local authorities trying to engage with the public and a number of provisions within the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 are designed to encourage this. However it is a matter for the local authority to decide what methods and resources should be employed to make their meetings more accessible

Whilst the Minister has not issued any advice or guidance on this matter, he encourages all local authorities to make the maximum effort to enable the public to engage with their proceedings. I understand that Carmarthenshire Council are due to vote shortly on the public broadcasting of their meetings. This development is welcomed by the Minister who hopes other local authorities will consider doing the same
Yours sincerely
Scrutiny, Democracy & Participation Team"

It looks to me like my concerns were neatly side-stepped, I am beginning to wonder what the point of the Welsh Government is if they have no power, nor inclination, to intervene when a local authority behaves in this manner towards the electorate.


Andy Mabbett said...

"The view of Carl Sergeant AM, whose remit this falls under is that councillors nor anyone else should be filmed without being aware or having given their consent for this to happen."

So (ignoring the dubious grammar) all you need to do is shout, at the next meeting, "I'm filming this", and, as everyone will then be aware of it, there'll be no problem.

Mrs Angry said...

If Sergeant's 'view' is correct, then this contradicts the position taken by Eric Pickles, and implies that the guidance given by the Sec of State is unlawful, which clearly it is not. The councillors are participating in a public meeting as part of their duties as elected representatives, and not as private individuals.

I simply cannot believe that the locked doors arrangement is not being legally challenged: this is a very serious interference with fire evacuation procedures and presents a very real threat to the safety of the public. There are many terrible - and recent - examples of the loss of life in locations, due either to the effects of fire or from crushing, where people have been unable to leave premises quickly enough. There can never be justification for locking exits, and to do so in this ridiculous context is simply outrageous.

Alwyn ap Huw said...

that councillors nor anyone else should be filmed without being aware or having given their consent for this to happen

What a load of tosh! How many CCTV cameras are there in Wales? I would suspect that Carmarthen Council actually films members of the public whilst they are in the county hall (I know for a fact that Conwy council does). I've never been asked for or given permission to film me to any of the myriad of private companies and public bodies who take pictures of me on a daily basis.

If I was caught by a speed camera could I use "the Sergeant defence" that the police hadn't informed me or sought my permission to film me speeding?

Plaid Gwersyllt said...

Carl Sergeant and Leighton Andrews have already picked a fight with Ynys Mon, Blaenau Gwent and Pembrokeshire Councils, do they really wanna pick a fight with Carmarthenshire especially as Meryl is the WLGA lead spokesperson on Social Care and is buddies with the Deputy Minister Gwenda Thomas. Likewise Keith Davies AM is ex Dir of Education in Sir Gar. Lots of influential bods in Sir Gar; perhaps too many for the Minister to take on!!

Anonymous said...

Why is it legal for CCTV cameras to film us without our consent, while councillors can determine it is illegal for them to be filmed by their electors?
Why do all public buildings, except the public gallery in County Hall, need fire exits?
In other words, why is the county council apparently exempt from rules that apply to the rest of us?
PS I did not receive a reply to a Twitter question sent to Councillor Pam Palmer during Democracy Week.

Photon said...

A lod of apologist tosh. The good old 'today's society' argument.

I wonder why it is, then, that when I go to my council offices, I can walk into any department within a large, central building, and not one person asks or requires me to explain what I'm doing there, nor gets anyone to accompany me to said offices. Why is the public gallery any different?