Friday 14 June 2013

Welsh freedom of speech 'suppressed' says Eric Pickles

Eric Pickles is again turning his attention to Wales, and, not for the first time this year, (see 'Eric Pickles raises concerns about Carmarthenshire Council funding libel action') has mentioned Carmarthenshire Council.

The issue this time is the rights of the public to record or film open council meetings. Local Government transparency guidance from Mr Pickles, as we are often reminded, doesn't apply to Wales. My view remains that this whole subject area should have nothing to do with party politics (for those that are unaware, we have a Labour government in Wales), or devolved powers - it's a matter of general public interest.

But today, Mr Pickles has gone a step further and written to his Welsh counterpart, Minister for Local Government, Lesley Griffiths AM;

A UK cabinet minister says he's concerned that freedom of speech in Wales is being suppressed due to inaction by the Welsh Government. Eric Pickles, who's responsible for English local government, has released a strongly-worded letter he's sent today to his counterpart in Wales, Lesley Griffiths. 
It has become clear that there is now a gulf between what local taxpayers bloggers and journalists can do in England and Wales. Welsh councils are routinely blocking people's right to report or film council meetings, leading to the high profile case of a local campaigner being handcuffed and arrested in Carmarthenshire for trying to report a council meeting. 
I am concerned that freedom of speech in Wales is being suppressed and as a result, waste corruption and incompetence is potentially being covered up. It is disappointing that the Welsh Government has not taken the opportunity to mirror the legal rights and practices that citizens now enjoy in England, and I would ask you to consider the case for enhancing openness and accountability in Wales. 
(ITV Wales)

The full press release from DCLG can be read here; Lights, camera, democracy in action and includes the following;

...The new rules do not apply to Wales, as they have not been introduced by the Welsh government who have devolved responsibility. This led to the situation of a blogger being arrested and handcuffed by the police for filming a council meeting in Carmarthenshire. Wrexham council also banned a journalist from the Daily Post from tweeting a council meeting. Eric Pickles has today challenged Welsh ministers to introduce the new rights in Wales too. 
Eric Pickles said: 
I want to stand up for the rights of journalists and taxpayers to scrutinise and challenge decisions of the state. Data protection rules or health and safety should not be used to suppress reporting or a healthy dose of criticism. 
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. 
Councillors should not be shy about the public seeing the good work they do in championing local communities and local interests. 
I challenge the Welsh government to give taxpayers in Wales the same rights as those in England now have, and stop the scandal of free speech being suppressed in Wales’ town halls. 
[Notes;The Health and Safety Executive has slammed down suggestions that health and safety regulations prevented filming. [cited by Wirral Council to ban filming] 
Blogger David Allen Green of the New Statesman has blogged on the Carmarthenshire Council case. 
Last month, Wrexham Council u-turned on its ‘no tweeting’ policy following a campaign by the Daily Post. 
The Electoral Reform Society has accused Welsh councils of “conducting business like it was the last century”.]

I am pleased of course that the 12 month webcasting pilot in Carmarthenshire is underway, (see yesterday's blogpost) even if limited to a handful of full council meetings. I hope it continues.  But the principle of allowing members of the public to film or record open meetings must be established. It is perverse not to allow it.

What about Executive Board, Planning, Audit, Standards Committees? What about Scrutiny meetings? Can you imagine what would happen if I started filming the Executive Board - a repeat performance of #daftarrest? The only actual breach of the peace was caused by heckling officers and councillors, a fact recognised by the Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys Police.

The Plaid group on Carmarthenshire Council tabled a Motion to allow the public to film late last year, this was rejected by the ruling administration.

I hope that the concerted opposition in the Welsh Government, recently successful in securing the establishment of an independent body to set chief council officers' pay against the will of the ruling administration, will listen to Eric, and try and do the same for the rights of Welsh citizens to record meetings.

1 comment:

Plaid Gwersyllt said...

Lesley Griffiths as also refused a Plaid Cymru amendment to the Local Democracy Bill in relation to social media.