My Lords, Amendment 42A concerns media and public access to meetings, addressing issues around the right of the press and the public to have access to the meetings of combined authorities. Existing statutory requirements enable the press, the media generally and the general public to attend, view or listen to council meetings, council committee meetings and council sub-committee meetings. These regulations are well understood in terms of their requirements and their spirit. Alongside the right to attend meetings, there are rights to receive advance notice of meetings, to see agendas in advance and to inspect relevant documents.
This amendment seeks to ensure that those rights of access cannot be diminished in the case of combined authorities. It requires reasonable access to be ensured and, in subsection (2), acknowledges the need to ensure that commercial confidentiality is protected and for officials to feel able to give essential advice to those who are charged with making decisions. Both criteria are, of course, within the existing regulations for local government.
Why, therefore, does the Bill fail to make any mention of an obligation on the mayoral authorities which it creates to meet in public? Members of the public and the media currently have a general right to attend council meetings, including those of the local authority executive or the cabinet and their committees. They also have the right to film, audio-record, tweet or blog from those meetings. These rights are primarily set out in the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 and the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014. Given the freedom that the Secretary of State will have to set up the new authorities by ministerial order, there is great potential for them to be watered down unless the rights of the public and the press are protected by being placed firmly in the Bill.
Given the importance of overview and scrutiny committees, will the Minister tell us the intention behind Schedule 3, which contains an enabling power allowing the Secretary of State to block disclosure of information to an overview and scrutiny committee and to determine what material it, in turn, can put into the public domain? This amendment seeks to address these concerns. I look forward to the Minister’s confirmation that there will be no diminution of the right of the press, the media generally and the public to attend meetings of combined authorities as they currently do within local government.