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More access for local bloggers to attend council meetings

The Communities and local Government Secretary Eric Pickles is bringing in a further changes to boost Town Hall transparency. This time by increasing the rights of local bloggers to attend meetings.

There will be a "presumption of openness" under the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 (the 2012 Regulations). It will still be possible to exclude people where there is a valid reason for confidentiality such as where commercial negotiations are under way of their is a requirement for an individual's anonymity. But these will be narrow legal reasons. A council won't be able to exclude people on the grounds of "political advice" or on the claim that there isn't a "key decision."

Individual councillors will also have greater rights - with the power to see reports in advance of the meetings at which the decisions they cover will be made.

The definition of the media will be extended to include "social media" so that local bloggers as well as local newspaper reporters be given "reasonable facilities" at these meetings.

Will these new transparency be onerous for councils? Actually less so that what they replace as they will be more straightforward. Cumbersome procedures introduced by Labour concerning  'key decisions', "quarterly reports" and 'forward plans' are swept away.  Instead, a document must be produced saying what the decision is to be made and how to obtain the documents upon which it will be based.

Eric Pickles said:

"Every decision a council takes has a major impact on the lives of local people so it is crucial that whenever it takes a significant decision about local budgets that affect local communities whether it is in a full council meeting or in a unheard of sub-committee it has got to be taken in the full glare of all the press and any of the public. 

"Margaret Thatcher was first to pry open the doors of Town Hall transparency. Fifty years on we are modernising those pioneering principles so that every kind of modern journalists can go through those doors - be it from the daily reporter, the hyper-local news website or the armchair activist and concerned citizen blogger - councils can no longer continue to persist with a digital divide."

In 1960, proposing her private members bill granting the press access to council meetings, Margaret Thatcher said:

"I hope that hon. Members will think fit to give this Bill a Second Reading, and to consider that the paramount function of this distinguished House is to safeguard civil liberties rather than to think that administrative convenience should take first place in law."

She also felt that it was important for the press to have a chance to see the reports before the meeting:

"Agendas vary very much. Some are couched in terms which do not betray for one moment the subject which is to be discussed. One sees such items as "To discuss the proposal of Mr. Smith " and, "To receive the recommendation of Mr. Jones ". As distinct from the supporting accompanying documents, the agenda itself is usually a comparatively brief document. I have, therefore, thought fit to put into the subsection a provision that the agenda shall be supplied to the Press together with such further statement or particulars as are necessary to convey to an outside person the nature of the subject to be discussed. Therefore, the Press must have some idea from the documents what is the true subject to be discussed at meetings to which its representatives are entitled to be admitted."

Thus the first Thatcher reforms became law. It is fantasic that over half a century later they are being extended in this way.



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