It is now perfectly legal to record council meetings

For nearly two years I have been asking for permission to record Surrey County Council’s Waverley Local Area Committee (LAC) meetings. I was granted permission from the Committee Chair, Cllr Pat Frost (with certain conditions attached) to record the 13th December 2013 meeting:

  • this permission is granted to you personally
  • the permission is subject to the business of the meeting not being disturbed: the Chairman will make the final decision in all matters of dispute in regard to the use of social media and filming during the meeting
  • filming must be limited to the formal meeting area (i.e. that occupied by the members of the Committee) and not extend to the public seating area
  • we may request a copy of any recording made
  • it is recommended that tweets should take place at the end of an item so that the full range of a discussion can be covered

In June 2013, Cllr Pat Frost was keen to point out that:

I must stress that the DLCG have only issued guidelines and have not enshrined them in law.

From Gov.UK website, Published 6 August 2014

New law now allows press and public to film, tweet and blog town halls.

In a boost for local democracy and the independent free press, councils in England were brought into the 21st century today (6 August 2014) after Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, signed a Parliamentary order allowing press and public to film and digitally report from all public meetings of local government bodies. This ‘right to report’ updates a law passed by Margaret Thatcher as a backbench MP.

Following the passage of both primary and secondary legislation, the move opens councils’ digital doors, covering broadcasters, national press, local press, bloggers and hyper-local journalists and the wider public. The new law aims to end active resistance amongst some councils to greater openness. Councils have even called the police to arrest people who tried to report, tweet or film council meetings, or claimed spurious ‘health and safety’ or ‘reputational risks’ to digital reporting.

This new law builds on Margaret Thatcher’s successful Private Members’ Bill from 1960 which allowed for the written reporting of council meetings by the press. The new rules will apply to all public meetings, including town and parish councils and fire and rescue authorities.

Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, said:

Half a century ago, Margaret Thatcher championed a new law to allow the press to make written reports of council meetings. We have updated her analogue law for a digital age.

Local democracy needs local journalists and bloggers to report and scrutinise the work of their council, and increasingly, people read their news via digital media. The new ‘right to report’ goes hand in hand with our work to stop unfair state competition from municipal newspapers – together defending the independent free press.

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.

Further information

New rights

The government has published a plain English guide of practical information on how the public can exercise their new rights, and what they should expect from their local government bodies.

The Openness of Local Government Regulations 2014, which apply to England, give rights to members of the press and public to:

  • use modern technology and communication methods such as filming, audio-recording, blogging and tweeting to report the proceedings of the meetings of their councils and other local government bodies
  • see information relating to significant decisions made outside meetings by officers acting under a general or specific delegated power

Case studies

  • a councillor in Thanet was removed by the police for trying to film a council meeting discussing airport expansion

  • Wirral Council said filming a planning committee would compromise ‘health and safety’.

  • Tower Hamlets Council barred a 71 year old resident from filming due the risk of ‘reputational damage’ to the authority

  • Keighley Town Council blocked residents filming as it would amount to a ‘breach of standing orders’

  • Bexley Council said audio and visual filming would breach its ‘agreed protocol’

  • Stamford Town Council placed a ban on journalists tweeting from meetings due to the risk of them ‘not accurately portraying a debate’

  • a blogger in Huntingdonshire was removed by police for filming, and has advised fellow bloggers to ‘be prepared for the police to be called and the possibility of arrest’

Why is it important?

So that we do not have a re-run of behaviour that 200+ residents witnessed at the famous Witley Surrey County Council LAC Waverley meeting chaired by Councillor Pat Frost.

Meeting was reminiscent of something between Hogarth’s Gin Lane & the Mad Hatter’s tea party

A day at the Panto – @SurreyCouncil parking Proposals for Haslemere – open letter

Letter to @Jeremy_Hunt about the conduct of the Local Committee Waverley cc @SurreyCouncil