I was listening this morning to edited highlights of a recent Lambeth Council planning meeting (yes, I know, it sounds sad for a Sunday morning but it concerns an important development issue for my patch), recorded by Streatham resident Mark Oxley. It’s almost an hour long (much shorter than the actual meeting) and you can listen to it here.
A fair summary of a contentious meeting, recorded by a resident of the borough. Mark has said elsewhere that he intends to ‘find out just what rules govern taking notes of meetings.’ He was technically breaching the rules. I’ll explain why, and then explain why the rules should be changed.
Rule 20, one of the briefest rules in Lambeth Council’s lengthy constitution, has this to say:
‘No-one is allowed to take photographs of or record using any audio and/or visual equipment the proceedings in meetings unless permission is given at the meeting.’
The chair of a meeting can in theory adjourn a meeting if the rule is being broken, be they the Mayor (Full Council), the Leader (Cabinet meetings), a scrutiny chair, the chair of a scrutiny commission, or the chair of any other formally constituted meeting being held in public (note: council meetings are meetings in public rather than public meetings).
On occasion, ‘standing orders’ have been suspended (by agreement) to allow photography and audiovisual recording, as for example with the Full Council when civic awards are presented, or the rare occasions when public galleries are full and a video link is provided to an overflow room.
Quite frankly, Rule 20 exists for no good reason. How long it has existed and why it exists is a mystery to me. Why Lambeth councillors should not be photographed or recorded in town hall meetings when we can be photographed or recorded anywhere else is indefensible.
Other councils, quite rightly, offer a webcast of virtually every meeting. Here is a link to the feast of local democracy that Maidstone Borough Council has to offer.
That is a sensible way to provide the official record, so that residents who are unable to be at a meeting can catch up with it online. A live webcast which would be placed in an online archive for retrieval seems to be a sensible way forward. Some councils do this, and some, like Lambeth, don’t.
What about the unofficial record, like Mark Oxley’s podcast? Well, if councillors like me can tweet away merrily and even blog from council meetings (whilst paying due attention and guided, of course, by the Code of Conduct), why on earth shouldn’t the public be able to tweet, video, photograph and otherwise relay the meeting to a wider audience?
Neighbouring Southwark has recently agreed to allow people to make recordings in some of its meetings. Well done Southwark. It’s time for Lambeth to follow suit and abolish a pointless rule.
Across the country, councils have varying attitudes to how their meetings are recorded. Some have full, almost verbatim written minutes, some have literally bullet points. Some do webcasts, some don’t appear to be aware of the existence of the internet.
Surely there is a case, given growing concern about the democratic accountability of councils in a time when cuts are being made to services, to establish a national common level of transparency about where and when, and with what level of debate, decisions are made.
Some councils may, given their financial situation, not see investing in webcasting and fuller minuting as a priority. But allowing the public to transmit the words and actions of councillors beyond the town hall costs nothing and would be an important step towards greater transparency and accountability.