Later today, the House is considering opening the way for the Government to introduce amendments to the Local Audit and Accountability Bill that will take forward proposals to give the press and public new, stronger rights to film and report council meetings.
Subject to parliamentary approval, the legislation will enshrine in the law the right of residents, bloggers and journalists to report, blog, tweet and film council meetings in England.
Last year, the coalition Government introduced secondary legislation to open councils’ Executive meetings to greater scrutiny, and I actively encouraged councils to do the same with their meetings of committees and full council. In August, I asked the planning inspectorate to open up their hearings fully to the public. However, many councils have slammed their doors shut rather than opening them up, clinging to old-fashioned Standing Orders or spurious excuses like “health and safety”.
A recent survey from the TaxPayers’ Alliance revealed an alarming number of councils in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire who were still keeping democracy behind closed doors. Some councils had even banned local residents from recording, blogging and tweeting at council meetings. Consequently, the Government are to move amendments to primary legislation to help open up all council meetings.
An independent local press and robust public scrutiny is essential for a healthy local democracy. We are taking action against “town hall pravdas” which are undermining the independent free press, but I want to do more to help the new cadre of hyper-local journalists and bloggers.
It was a Private Member’s Bill by Margaret Thatcher which introduced the substantive right to attend council meetings back in 1960, building on earlier legislation from the Liberal Government of 1908. It is right that we now bring these provisions up to date with the digital age. Councillors should not be shy about the good work that they do.
This measure will help bloggers and tweeters, as well as journalists, unlock the mysteries of local government and make it more transparent for all. My Department is standing up for press freedom.
Government amendments will also seek to improve the archaic rules over parish polls—allowing for example, longer polling hours, postal votes and polling cards—responding to the debate of the Bill in the House of Lords.
The Bill will also abolish the residual parts of the Audit Commission; protect local press from taxpayer-funded town hall propaganda sheets; and ensure that local taxpayers have greater say over council tax levies imposed by bodies with a minimal or no public presence.
Subject to parliamentary approval, these measures will apply to all councils in England.
The coalition Government have abolished top-down inspection like comprehensive area assessment and is scrapping the Audit Commission, and we have given councils more power. But it is essential that local people and local media are able to hold their councils to account. Local accountability and local transparency is essential for localism to thrive.