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Pickles invites bloggers deeper into the Town Hall

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

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11 Responses to Pickles invites bloggers deeper into the Town Hall

  1. Very much needed. Stockport Council has just agreed in a secret from the public meeting to pay this firm even more money, after all the golden planning elephants they have inexplicably showered on it already:-

    http://www.sheilaoliver.org/offerton-precinct.html

  2. Paul Banjo says:

    There is some ambiguity that I hope will get clarified – Whereas the headline might suggest that it applies to all councils, I’ve been told that in fact the new legislation applies only to those (many / most) councils that are required to operate executive arrangements. As such, there will be a small but not insignificant number of small ‘Option 4′ (district) councils that can carry on regardless. It might be helpful to suggest that at the very least these councils regard the legislation as good practice and endeavour to apply it, even if they are not obliged to.

  3. Pingback: Pickles invites bloggers deeper into the Town Hall… « Kind of Digital Exchange

  4. Alan Stanton says:

    From the variation in posted comments it seems that councils are ranged on a continuum from healthy transparency to fetid secrecy. Those with a culture and practice of openness and full accountability will see Mr Pickles’ changes as wholly unnecessary. While those towards the other end of the continuum may pause nervously for a few seconds, but then grin smugly and carry on much as before.

    “Closed decision-making meetings?” They may look hurt. “How could you possibly think that?” Asked about reports, they will admit that “regretfully” there do have to be papers stamped ‘confidential’ and ‘exempt’ on every page. But then they’ll smile and perhaps say: “Better safe than sorry, eh?”

    What about closed meetings of advisory and consultative panels, boards, and review bodies? “Come now”, they may say, “it’s hardly closed government. These are entirely understandable and essential tools to enable freewheeling debate and arrive at informed proposals and recommendations. How could it possibly be otherwise?”

    And what of the ‘commissions’ handpicked by the Leader? “What’s to worry about?” they might reply. “Don’t we welcome fresh ideas from outside?”

    They key point, of course, is that no actual decisions are ever taken by these bodies. Heaven forbid! We will hear an assurance along the lines that: “Recommendations are always left to the formal public bodies for decision-making. All those in favour say: “Gottle of Gear”.

    Let’s also remember the Freedom of Information Act. Personally I find it very comforting to know that both residents and councillors can always try to find out what’s going on in their own local authority by sending in F.o.I. questions. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ wrote: “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”.

    Alan Stanton

  5. Y Cneifiwr says:

    I’m not sure how much this would really change things. My own local authority invariably uses public interest exemptions under the 1972 Act when it holds a closed meeting. What needs changing is the definition of what merits an exemption.

    For example, transferring assets (public toilets in this case) from a county council to community councils should not justify an exemption. Buying a business park from another arm of government with no private sector interests involved should not be secret either. Neither should loans and grants given to churches or charities. Protect individuals by all means, and most of us would understand that commercially sensitive negotiations should be exempt. But much of the rest should be open and public, and I don’t think these proposals do that.

  6. This is encouraging news, unfortunately it doesn’t apply to Wales where our devolved government takes a less transparent view of the world. These issues should be cross-party.
    In Carmarthenshire, they’ve locked the doors and banned filming. ‘Armchair auditors’ are unwelcome and the presumption is definitely against openness and scrutiny.
    By allowing greater access etc does not necessarily encourage greater participation by the public but by providing a legal framework, it’s a big step in the right direction.

  7. Roger Gambba-Jones says:

    This is another example of Eric Pickles twisted version of Localism – directed Localism. If the public are so desperate to know what’s going on at their local,council, why aren’t they packing out the public gallery at every public meeting? If the armchair critics are too lazy to get off their backsides and attend and are now pushing for others to feed them material, by attending meetings and blogging their possibly jaded views, is that a good, or even desired outcome.
    We often hear of the local press being criticised for biased reporting meetings, with edited comments changing significantly the tone or even the meaning of what was said. When this happens, there is at least the possibility of replying and correcting the misinformation, if only through the letters page of the local paper. Without even this modicum of accountability, how would having the very personalised opinions of a local blogger make a positive contribution to local democracy?
    Finally, calling for group meetings to be made public, is missing completely the point of having closed meetings. Candid, honest and sometimes heated exchanges of opinion on difficult issues can only be done in private. The challenge of having your local council exclusively populated by a single political group, is an issue for the local electorate to sort out through the democratic process, not the local press, or the Internet.

  8. It would be a start if all councils were required to have a no-password wifi available in the meeting rooms of their town halls.

    For individual citizens and community groups (of which we are one) it is very hard to follow intelligently without online access to documents which the Councillors and Officers all have.

    In recent public hearings in London’s City Hall (no less) this has been a major problem. Democracy is often a sham.

    Freedom to tweet and blog would be a bonus.

  9. Jon Foster says:

    I think this is a really positive step forward, I’m just saddened not to see more explicit wording about the actual reporting of council meeting, in addition to access to them.

    While, as your anonymous councillor says, many councils are now open and up for social reporting by citizen journalist, many are not. And in my view, any ‘clarification’, or whatever you want to call this, is welcome and necessary.

    Over on TweetyHall, we’ve been reporting on the recent events in Clevedon – where the town council has passed a motion to ban any outside communications and the use of any mobile phone during council meetings. What would be really useful, would be legislation that forces councils to allow citizens to report meetings like it is 2012 – i.e. digitally and in real time.

    The Clevedon motion was passed after a town councillor tried to Tweet from a meeting in order to raise awareness of what actually went on at them. Comments such as “If people are concerned about a burning issue, as they have shown us in the past, they will come to our meetings.” and “How easy do we need to make it for people to engage with the council?” from fellow councillors show how desperate that particular situation is.

    (there’s more on the Clevedon story on the TweetyHall blog here: http://blog.tweetyhall.co.uk/2012/08/trouble-in-clevedon/ )

  10. macuser_e7 says:

    The problem in Newham, where I live, is that there’s no point in going to council meetings because there’s no debate or discussion. Meetings last as little as 10 minutes as business is nodded through.

    The reason for this is that we have a one-party state – all 60 councillors plus the elected mayor – come from the same party. Such discussion as does take place happens in Labour group meetings, which are private.

    The council’s own website used to say that “at these meetings the Council makes major decisions, such as deciding the council tax and budget and policy framework documents. It is the real focus for the whole Council to meet and debate major issues and to ask questions of the Mayor.” Interestingly I notice that the current version of the site now omits the last sentence!

    Unless Mr Pickles can force councillors to have their group meetings in public (highly unlikely!) this move means nothing for Newham.