Following on from last week’s post about council accountability and transparency, let’s take a look at the draft Local Government Bill which is current at the committee stage in the NI Assembly.
(I’ll also reference NILGA’s response to the draft bill, though it should be noted that the membership of the NI Local Government Association will skew the organisation’s reaction to the draft legislation through the lens of councillors and council executives rather than the public.)
As well as covering the permitted form of governance, conduct of councillors, powers of councils and community planning, the legislation also covers access to meetings and documents as well as performance improvement processes.
Clause 46 makes council meetings to be open to the public (except for business items where it is likely confidential information would be disclosed. Public notice of the time and location of meetings must be posted in council offices five days before the meeting (unless it’s convened at shorter notice). Councils don’t have the power to exclude members of the public from meetings that are open to the public.
Clause 46 also allows “duly accredited representatives of newspapers” (which includes a agencies which supply information/reports to newspapers (eg, Press Association), organisations which are “systematically engaged in collecting news” for radio or TV or anything else within the terms of the Broadcasting Act 1990. These “duly accredited representatives” must be afforded reasonable facilities to take their report and phone it (at their own expense) back in to work.
Clause 46 also notes that councils are not required to permit the taking of photographs, not required to permit the broadcasting or recording to allow people not present to see or hear any proceedings live or later, and not required to permit making any oral report on proceedings as they take place (ie, live commentary).
- The current wording falls far short of parity with English councils which since 2012 open up proceedings to be recorded and filmed by the public, never mind the mainsteam media. The English legislation states that if a “meeting is open to the public, any person attending the meeting for the purpose of reporting the proceedings is, so far as practicable, to be afforded reasonable facilities for taking their report”. Not confined to the media, but opened up to the public.
- So in England there would be no need for journalists to be made to sign pieces of paper – like this example from Castlereagh Council – before entering the council chamber.
- The English legislation also adds a subclause to the definition of “newspaper” which includes “any organisation which is systematically engaged in collecting news … for use in electronic or any other format to provide news to the public by means of the internet” which would include journalists from online news organisations like The Detail (which are potentially excluded from the draft NI legislation) and bloggers (which are definitely excluded from the NI legislation).
- In England, councils are required “to provide reasonable facilities for any member of the public to report on meetings” and this is interpreted as allowing the filming and audio recording of councillors and officers at meetings, as well as “social media reporting of meetings … bloggers, tweeters, facebook and YouTube users, and individuals with their own website, should be able to report meetings”. The public guide even suggests “you should ask your council for details of the facilities they are providing for citizen journalists”! Some English councils still require those attending to ask before recording, but permission should normally be granted.
- While NILGA’s response to the draft legislation notes that there is no reference to online media in the draft NI legislation, it does not reference the different level of openness already in place in England.
- The draft Northern Ireland legislation fails to support the live reporting of council business, not even by accredited journalists. There’s nothing to lift existing prohibitions on using any device more sophisticated than a pen and paper to note down what’s happening at a council meeting. While possible for individual councils to permit live reporting and/or electronic note-taking, surely the opportunity should be taken with new legislation to uniformly open up councils to scrutiny?
Clause 47 ensures that copies of the agenda and associated reports for a meeting are made available at council offices to members of the public at least five days in advance (unless convened at shorter notice) and unless related to an item of business deemed unlikely to be open to the public. The public shouldn’t see documents before they’re available for councillors.
Clause 47 says that an item of business may not be considered at a meeting of a council unless it’s been made available in advance to the public or “by reasons of special circumstances … specified in the minutes” the chair of the meeting thinks the item is urgent.
Clause 47 also states “a reasonable number of copies of the agenda and reports for the meeting” are available to members of the public present at meetings to use.
- NILGA notes that in respect of documents and their storage, these clauses “place a greater administrative burden and cost on councils”. Though councils already have a variety of (sometimes good, sometimes awful) document management facilities, already have information retention policies.
- With the formation of 11 new councils, there must surely also be room for shared document management solutions that will ease the burden of tagging public and private versions as well as managing retention timescales.
- Making copies available to members of the public in attendance will be a big improvement on my experience of sitting though a few Lisburn Council planning meetings ‘blind’ while the councillors and council staff worked through planning applications in what often sounded like an advanced game of bingo. Allowing people into the room to attend a meeting is only part of opening up the context and content of meetings to scrutiny.
Clause 47 also allows “any newspaper” to get copies of a meeting’s agenda and reports “on payment of postage or other necessary charge for transmission”.
- Nothing to say that the agenda and background documents should be published for free on a council website in advance – which is already the custom of Belfast City Council.
Clause 48 deals with the public inspection of minutes (with “a written summary of proceedings” which weren’t open to the public “without disclosing the exempt information”).
Clause 48 also ensures councils put the agenda, minutes and any reports for the meeting on their website after the meeting (as well as being available for inspection at council offices).
- Realistically, after the subsequent meeting that approves the previous month’s minutes.
- This is the only reference to a council website in the entire draft Local Government Bill. In comparison, the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 rarely say “displaying it at the offices of the relevant local authority” without adding the phrase “and publishing it on that authority’s website, if it has one”. Time Northern Ireland caught up with the tail end of the 20th century never mind what’s become normal this century.
Clause 49 ensures that councils make background papers related to reports available for inspection at council offices.
- These don’t seem to be covered under Clause 48’s mention of website publication.
Clause 50 applies clauses 46 – 49 to committee and sub-committee meetings of a council.
- According to their response, NILGA “supports openness and transparency and the attendance of the public and press at council and committee meetings” but “is deeply concerned at the proposed extension of these arrangements to subcommittees”. The councillors’ organisation feels that “whilst subcommittees are indeed a part of the decision making process, they are often used as a first stage of initial discussions on topics which will, following such informal discussions, be brought to committees and council and discussed in the public domain”.
- NILGA adds that “one man’s subcommittee is another man’s working team and another man’s think tank”.
- Their response later adds that “to extend clause 50 to subcommittees would be damaging to the democratic process, with initial debate possibly taking place in unminuted meetings, prior to meetings to which the public and press would have access”.
- Observers of Northern Ireland’s local government history might recall that subcommittees and working groups have previously been used to hide debate and decision making from councillors (eg, the effective exclusion of Sinn Fein councillors from Belfast City Council business during the late 1980s and early 1990s) never mind from the public.
- There seems little need to encourage elected representatives to plot and plan entirely in private, on top of the ability already in the draft bill to transact an item of business in private (or an informal meeting over coffee to plan strategy). Maybe some councillors could leave comments to describe the kind of business that would warrant entire sub-committees slipping permanently under the radar?
Clauses 92 to 95 allow the Department of the Environment to specify performance indicators and performance standards on top of a council’s own internal Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and targets.
- Oddly clause 93 seems to define the reporting as annual, which may not lead to fast action or correction.
- On the other hand, councils may be wise to internally measure themselves and drive efficiencies and improvements from the inside before the Department intervenes.
Clauses 96 to 100 cover improvement audit and assessment.
The Environment Committee would do well to examine the English legislation and borrow liberally to not only ensure parity with the level of open access in England, but to ensure that Northern Ireland ratepayers can assure themselves that local government is delivering as effectively as they deserve.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.