Wednesday 19 June 2013

Welsh Government backing 'Town Hall tyranny', says Westminster

Further to Eric Pickles' published letter, (see 'Welsh freedom of speech 'suppressed' says Eric Pickles' ) to the Welsh Minister, Lesley Griffiths, the row appears to be escalating.

As reported by ITV Wales, Ms Griffiths has replied to Mr Pickles;

Minister accuses Pickles of 'astounding ignorance' 
The Local Government Secretary has been accused of 'astounding ignorance' by his Welsh counterpart. Lesley Griffiths has written to Eric Pickles after he criticised the Welsh Government for not following his lead in taking action to protect the right to report, film and tweet local council meetings. 
In the letter Ms Griffiths says it was 'entirely inappropriate' for Mr Pickles to intervene on a devolved matter; that it was 'discourteous' to make the letter public and that it was an 'extremely surprising and totally unacceptable interference by the UK Government in the Welsh political sphere.'

Oh dear.

Westminster, in the form of Tory party Vice Chairman, Bob Neill, fired back (my emphasis);

Tories accuse Welsh Government of backing 'town hall tyranny' 
The Conservatives have renewed their attack on the Welsh Government for not following Westminster's example and defining the public's right to report, film and tweet what happens in local council meetings. 
This time the criticism has come from a Tory party official after complaints from Cardiff Bay that an earlier letter from the Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, was 'entirely inappropriate' and showed 'astounding ignorance'. 
The Labour Administration in Wales is openly opposing the right for journalists and bloggers to tweet, film and report meetings. It is obscene that Welsh bloggers are being handcuffed and arrested in Wales for reporting meetings because they don't have the legal rights that English bloggers now have. No amount of bluster can disguise the fact that the Labour Party are the enemies of openness and on the side of town hall tyranny."
The letter, which was also copied to the Secretary of State for Wales, has been seen by ITV Wales and marks an escalation of an already bitter row between the two departments and comes on the day the Welsh Government described relations with Whitehall as 'sometimes frustrating.'

As if to prove Mr Neill right, the distinctly underwhelming Local Democracy Bill (Wales) passed through its final stage at the Assembly yesterday. There was much talk of openness, transparency and fairness but precious little in the way of practical steps. A requirement for councils to publish spending details would have been welcome, for example.

Of interest was a new requirement for Councils to publish the Register of Members' Interests online. Many already do this but not Carmarthenshire, and this will now bring an end to uncomfortable, and closely supervised visits to the vaults to see the ledgers.

The Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales will now make recommendations over the level of council Chief Executives' pay, rather than being set by councillors, the measure falls short as it does not apply to other senior officers at director level.

The amendment to remove the extra payment to Chief Executives who act as returning officers, (in Carmarthenshire this was an extra £20,000 last year), effectively a double payment, was lost but the Minister said that this would be looked into. We wait and see.

As for reporting from, or recording council meetings, the following amendment was, shamefully, lost;

'While a meeting (including committee meetings) of a principal council or community council 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.'

It would have provided at least a basis for members of the public to record meetings and would have ensured free use of social media during meetings. The #daftarrest of the Carmarthenshire blogger (me) was mentioned as an example of why legislation is needed. Too right it's needed.

This amendment already forms part of the Local Authorities (Meetings and Access to Information) Regulations 2012, but unfortunately that only applies to England.

The Bill will eventually become law and, despite a handful welcome measures, its a lost opportunity. If the Welsh Government doesn't legislating for greater all-round openness, (yes, in a reasonable and cost effective manner), Wales will never crawl out of the dark ages and our public authorities will never be properly and publicly scrutinised. It'll be chauffeur driven limos all round....

Meanwhile, in Carmarthenshire, the 'town hall tyranny' continues unabated. This Bill doesn't even touch the sides of our County Hall.

For your information, here's a link to the start of the 'Local Democracy' debate in the Senedd (June 18th);

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