Thursday, 23 August 2012

Eric Pickles - Unlocking the doors?

New laws come into effect in September in an attempt to open up local government and provide a legal basis for greater transparency and the rights of members of the public to report and record meetings. I'm not sure how much will apply to Wales, the Welsh Government seems to be able to pick and choose which UK legislation it's obliged to follow, or not. As I have said, all of these issues of transparency and openness should be cross-party - something I trust our equivalent Welsh Minister, Carl Sargeant would agree with me on.

I doubt very much whether anything Mr Pickles says, or anyone else for that matter would make much difference to the way things are done in Carmarthenshire - or would improve the dire levels of debate, unnecessarily closed meetings and locked doors.....

The full statement can be read here, with a few snippets below;

Ministers have put new regulations before Parliament that would come into force next month to extend the rights of people to attend all meetings of a council's executive, its committees and subcommittees.New law changes to introduce greater openness and transparency in executive councils meetings will mean all decisions including those affecting budgets and local services will have to be taken in an open and public forum, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles announced today..... 
Chris Taggart, of, which has long championed the nedd to open council business up to public scrutiny, added; 
"In a world where hi-definition video cameras are under £100 and hyperlocal bloggers are doing some of the best council reporting in the country, it is crazy that councils are prohibiting members of the public from videoing, tweeting and live-blogging their meetings"...... 
Presumption in favour of openness: In the past councils could cite political advice as justification for closing a meeting to the public and press, or state that decisions being made were not 'key decisions'. The new regulations create a presumption that all meetings of the executive, its committees and subcommittees are to be held in public (regulation 3) unless a narrowly defined legal exception applies. A meeting will only be held in private if confidential information would be disclosed, or a resolution has been passed to exclude the public because exempt information is likely is be disclosed, or a lawful power is used to exclude the public in order to maintain orderly conduct at the meeting (regulation 4).
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).

The Local Government Information Unit blog has posed the question whether these measure will create greater interest in local government, (I've left a comment) 


Cneifiwr said...

Looks like a lot of window dressing to me. What needs to change is the definition of what qualifies for a public interest exemption, with penalties for councillors and officers who break the rules.

In the case of Carmarthenshire we have the enduring mystery of why 2 meetings about Towy Community Church were held in private, while the third was suddenly thrown open. Practically the only thing that had changed was that funding for the church had become a PR hot potato. That strongly suggests that the previous two exemptions were incorrectly applied.

caebrwyn said...

Quite agree, and after having had sight of the Towy Church reports I could see no reason for exemption. The community toilet transfer exemption was another notorious occasion.
Perhaps the practice of adding exempt items on the agenda after it has been published should be brought to an end. This has happened a few times, including at the Executive Board meeting on Jan 23rd. No one is any the wiser until a week or so later when the garbled minutes are published.

The part of the new legislation dealing with the public access to meetings is;
"While the meeting is open to the public, any person attending the meeting for the purpose of reporting the proceedings is, so far as practicable, to be afforded reasonable facilities for taking their report"
Which, as a far as I am aware has removed the distinction of 'journalist'. I suppose I'll be able to film the meetings from the comfort of the Chamber now...won't I?