In a victory for transparency, the Government has announced that from today members of the public and journalists will be able to film and report on all public meetings held by local councils in England.
The Openness of Local Government Regulations 2014, signed into law by the Communities and Local Government (DCLG) Secretary Eric Pickles, will allow citizens to use 21st Century techniques such as tweeting and blogging to report on council meetings. It will also allow them to view material relating to some decisions made elsewhere by officers acting under a “general or specific delegated power”.
The move to update the law follows attempts by DCLG to use non-legislative methods, including the publication of guidance which explicitly confirmed that members of the public could overtly film council meetings. Sadly some councils chose to ignore this step.
Updating the law is therefore an important step forward in the ongoing battle to make councils more transparent and accountable to the public. Previous to this measure, there have been instances where members of the public have been removed from council meetings for attempting to film proceedings, on the spurious grounds that filming may cause “reputational damage” to the council. In one case an individual was barred from a session of Wirral Council’s Planning Committee on the grounds that filming the proceedings would constitute a health and safety risk.
In a statement Eric Pickles said:
“There is now no excuse for any council not to allow these new rights. Parliament has changed the law, to allow a robust and healthy local democracy. This will change the way people see local government, and allow them to view close up the good work that councillors do.”
Whether through Freedom of Information law, filming council meetings or publishing data, transparency is a critical check on those in power and an essential part of defending our liberties. It is however important to note that these measures will only apply to England. We therefore now urge the Welsh Government to consider affording their citizens the levels of transparency that have been guaranteed in England.