Local government can no longer act like 'Putin's Russia', says Pickles

Councils will soon have to allow meetings to be filmed. The Communities Secretary Eric Pickles hails a new openness

A new law that comes into force next week, allowing council meetings to be filmed, will move Britain away from a local government system characteristic of "Putin's Russia" and will revolutionise how the public views councillors, according to Eric Pickles.

The Communities Secretary condemned the current system, under which, in recent weeks, police have been called to chambers to throw the press and public out of meetings for attempting to tweet or record proceedings. He said the new rules, which will be implemented in early August under the Local Audit and Accountability Act, will unlock the mysteries of local government, providing more transparency over how councils use taxpayers' money.

The public will have greater rights to report at open meetings of local government bodies by filming, photographing, audio recording or any other means. The results can be published, posted or otherwise shared during or after the meeting.

The new rules apply to all "relevant local government bodies", which include all English two-tier and unitary authorities, fire authorities, national park authorities, joint committees (such as police and crime panels) and parish councils.

Filming rows have erupted in councils all over the country in recent months despite the passage of the new Act. Five police officers arrived at Thanet council's meeting earlier this month after Green councillor Ian Driver attempted to film proceedings, which included a discussion on the potential compulsory purchase of Manston airport.

Mr Driver last night hailed the move as "a great day for democracy". "Councils like Thanet have been veiled in secrecy for far too long. The criticism I have of the current cabinet system is that there's too much secrecy and my decision to start filming was a gesture of defiance. I've been thrown out of council meetings three times in the past year for trying to film. I couldn't believe it when the chairwoman called the police and five burly officers turned up and threw me out. The whole chamber knew new rules were about to come into force allowing filming, yet they still did it. The irony is that ITV had just been in filming at the same meeting."

Housing and Planning minister Brandon Lewis called Thanet's actions "blinkered". "Openness and transparency are crucial pillars in local democracy and must be upheld. It is time for state officials to stop hiding behind out-of-touch excuses.… Blinkered actions like this completely undermine the good work that councils do to champion local communities and local interests," he said.

Stapleford Town Council in Nottinghamshire voted to ban filming in April. Only two of 16 councillors voted for meetings to be filmed. Helen Grindell, a Lib Dem who voted for the ban, said: "If the last meeting [had been] filmed, some councillors would have shown themselves up due to their behaviour, which could paint the council in a bad light."

Mr Pickles' office criticised the decision. A letter to councillors said: "Members of the public should not be prevented from filming the town council meetings just because of distortion of the truth or selective edition. Allowing the public to film a public meeting is more likely to reduce one-sided distortion as video footage is more difficult to selectively quote. Councillors are no more likely to be quoted out of context than is currently the case when a written note is taken."

Councils around England and Wales have frequently banned the press and public from filming meetings this year. Bath and North East Somerset and Gloucester City councils are just a few of those who have been told by ministers to lift their bans in recent weeks.

Nicholas Dobson from Lawyers in Local Government, an independent body that advises local authorities, said he hoped the Government would not regret the move. He said: "Tony Blair was responsible for the Freedom of Information Act and he has been kicking himself in the backside ever since. I think, with the new filming rules, it's just a question of councils getting used to it. At least there are guidelines now."

The Government also intends to produce a plain English guide, which will cover matters such as what would constitute "disruptive behaviour" at a meeting, and the sort of decisions that officers would be required to record and publish.

Mr Pickles said last night: "Half a century ago, a Private Member's Bill by Margaret Thatcher opened up council meetings to the press and public. But these analogue rights need to be updated for a digital age – there is no legal right to blog, tweet or film a council meeting. This unhappy situation is epitomised by the average episode of Grand Designs, when the doors are slammed shut on the cameras if they want to film the planning committee.

"How can we criticise Putin's Russia for suppressing freedom of the press when, up and down the land, police are threatening to arrest people for reporting a council meeting with digital media?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Client Account Executive

£23000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Account Executive is r...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketing Executive

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Full Time position available now at a growing...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive + incentives + uncapped comms: SThree:...

Ashdown Group: Reporting & Analytics Supervisor - Buckinghamshire - £36,000

£34000 - £36000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Analytics & Reporting Tea...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future