Pickles invites bloggers deeper into the Town Hall

England, UK .  16.7.2012. London .  House of Commons. Local Government Parliamentary Reception.

Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Local Government and Communities, seems to love transparency.

Back in June 2010 he asked councils to publish all spending data over £500. His department matched it and just last week announced they were lowering the threshold by half.

Yesterday Mr. Pickles attacked the BBC, Ofsted and others for their “secrecy over use of surveillance”. Public bodies should be transparent about why they use the powers they possess.

And today, we see another part of his affection with openness. In a press release (copied in full below), the SoS says he’s unlocking the doors of the Town Hall to social media and bloggers. The MJ has more.

How ‘new’ these powers are, however, is debatable. One councillor told me:

The announcement is slightly perplexing as councils already actively seek participation at meetings and only go into closed session when there are confidential contractual or legal issues to discuss.

I’ve previously praised Mr Pickles for inviting bloggers in to the Town Hall, but today I believe credit must go to people like Chris Taggart (OpenlyLocal), Tom Steinberg (MySociety) and others at the grassroots who, through their proactive work in opening up government information and making it useful and useable for the rest of us, are forcing the Government to make these steps.

Their work is also inspiring a new generation of developers, coders and programmers who are already experimenting with new tools and services that will empower more people with accessible and relevant local information.

But having the right legislation in place in the easy bit. The bigger problem we have with council meetings at the minute is not that people can’t go to them, it’s that people don’t want to go to them.

As my un-named Councillor continued:

It is welcome that the Secretary of State wants to encourage more members of the community to attend council meetings and the emphasis on the participation of social media is a constructive addition. This does however seem like a media announcement rather than a constructive addition to local authority powers. Surely local councils are best placed to work with their communities to encourage greater participation – a key tenant of the localism act. 

It seems opening up the Town Hall is the easy bit. Get people walking through the doors Mr. Pickles and then you really will get a lot of praise.

Below is the press release. I’m keen to hear what others think about this – is this a genuine step forward or just a nice piece of PR over the summer? Please leave your comments below, or tweet me on @robandale. 

 TOWN HALL DOORS UNLOCKED TO SOCIAL MEDIA AND BLOGGERS

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.

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.

The changes will result in greater public scrutiny. The existing media definition will be broadened to cover organisations that provide internet news thereby opening up councils to local online news outlets. Individual councillors will also have stronger rights to scrutinise the actions of their council.

Any executive decision that would result in the council incurring new spending or savings significantly affecting its budget or where it would affect the communities of two or more council wards will have to be taken in a more transparent way as a result.

Crucially councils will no longer be able to cite political advice as justification for closing a meeting to the public and press. In addition any intentional obstruction or refusal to supply certain documents could result in a fine for the individual concerned.

The changes clarify the limited circumstances where meetings can be closed, for example, where it is likely that a public meeting would result in the disclosure of confidential information. Where a meeting is due to be closed to the public, the council must now justify why that meeting is to be closed and give 28 days notice of such decision

As a consequence of the greater levels of transparency around meetings, the Government is able to remove unnecessary and bureaucratic red tape on forward plans introduced by legislation in 2000.

Eric Pickles said:

“Every decision a council takes has a major impact on the lives of local people so it is crucial that whenever it takes a significant decision about local budgets that affect local communities whether it is in a full council meeting or in a unheard of sub-committee it has got to be taken in the full glare of all the press and any of the public.

“Margaret Thatcher was first to pry open the doors of Town Hall transparency. Fifty years on we are modernising those pioneering principles so that every kind of modern journalists can go through those doors – be it from the daily reporter, the hyper-local news website or the armchair activist and concerned citizen blogger – councils can no longer continue to persist with a digital divide.”

Chris Taggart, of OpenlyLocal.com, which has long championed the need 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.

Notes to Editors

1. The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 (the 2012 Regulations) will come into force on 10 September 2012. Changes include:

·        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).

– Confidential information is information provided to the council by a Government department upon terms which forbid disclosure to the public or information which statute or a court order prohibits from being disclosed to the public.

– Exempt information is set out in Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972 and it includes information about a person, or information that would reveal their identity, consultations or negotiations relating of labour relations, or information in connection with preventing and detecting crime.

·        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).

·        Less red tape for councils: Removing internal bureaucracy introduced by the last Government about ‘key decisions’, quarterly reports and ‘forward plans’. Instead, a document explaining the key decision to be made, the matter in respect of which a decision would be made, the documents to be considered before the decision is made, and the procedures for requesting details of those documents, has to be published (regulations 9).

·        Special urgent decision: Where it is impossible to meet the publication requirements before a key decision is made and an agreement has been obtained from the chairman of the relevant overview and scrutiny committee or the relevant local authority to make the key decision, the decision maker must publish a notice to explain the reasons why the making of the decision is urgent (regulation 11). Previously no notice was required.

·        Stronger rights of individual councillors: Where an executive has in its the possession a document that contains materials relating to a business to be discussed at a public meeting, members of the local authority have additional rights to inspect such a document at least five days before the meeting (regulation 16). Previously no timescale existed.

·        Stronger rights for scrutiny members: Where the executive decides not to release the whole or part of a document to a member of an overview and scrutiny committee as requested by a councillor, it must provide a written statement to explain the reasons for not releasing such document (regulation 17).

·        Publication requirement: Publication of any notice by a decision-making body or a proper officer; or any document in relation to a key decision or public meeting and background papers must be on the relevant local authority’s website (regulations 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 14, 15, and 21).

1. The Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 opened up meetings to the public, allowing members of the public and press to attend meetings of certain public bodies including councils. Margaret Thatcher was the backbench MP who championed this as a Private Members Bill.

2. Part 5A of the Local Government Act of 1972 applies to access to meetings and documents of the full council and committees of the councils. It states that ‘duly accredited representatives of newspapers’ should be afforded ‘reasonable facilities’ to attend council meetings ‘for the purpose of reporting proceedings for those newspapers’. It also sets out that for those parts of council meetings that are open to the public, councils are prevented from ejecting members of the public unless they are guilty of disorderly conduct or other ‘misbehaviour’.

3. The Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 provides for greater public access to local authority meetings reports and documents subject to specified confidentiality provisions; to give local authorities duties to publish certain information; and for related purposes

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Email this to someone

England, UK . 16.7.2012. London . House of Commons. Local Government Parliamentary Reception, the summer reception of the All Party Parliamentary Local Government Group, hosted in conjunction with the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) . Rt. Hon Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Copyright © 2012 Andrew Wiard - Phone: + 44 (0) 7973-219 201. Email - andrew@reportphotos.com.