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Openness of Local Government

Volume 583: debated on Thursday 26 June 2014

Through the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014, the coalition Government are committed to opening up council meetings in England to digital and social media, updating the provisions of Margaret Thatcher’s Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 to a digital age. This will give the press and public new rights to film, report, record, blog and tweet council meetings, allowing the public to see the good work that councillors do, and increase the understanding of local democracy in action.

The draft “Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014”, which have been laid before Parliament, implement these provisions. Without prejudging the consent of Parliament, it is important that local government is in a position to implement promptly these new access rules, including those cases where current Standing Orders might not be unambiguously in line with the new requirements. To facilitate these changes and ensure the smooth introduction of the new rights, the Government are undertaking not to make the statutory instrument (which would come into force on the day after that on which it is made) until at least 28 days after the day on which parliamentary approval for the statutory instrument is given. In taking this approach we have also had regard to the report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments on the draft regulations.

We will also shortly be sending to local authorities a draft version of a new plain English guide on openness of council meetings, to explain the new rights and duties the regulations would bring. I will place a copy in the Library of the House in due course. Following any parliamentary approval, we will then publish a final plain English guide for the press and public. In the light of recent reports of journalists and bloggers being obstructed at council meetings of certain local authorities, we will highlight the need for councils to provide reasonable facilities to the free press (including print media, film crews, hyper-local journalists and bloggers) in a way that still allows for the orderly conduct of a meeting. We also wish to make crystal clear that council meetings in England should be conducted in English, and not in a foreign language.

Most town halls in England are already embracing such transparency, and do not need to wait for permission from Whitehall to open their doors to the press and public. However, a small minority are dragging their feet; Ministers want to make it clear that there is absolutely no reason for the public not to be able to exercise their new rights once the secondary legislation has been approved by Parliament and made.