- A lot of worrying about photographs being taken of councillors with their eyes closed and being misconstrued as being asleep. Is this the first time in history that councillors have not wanted their picture taken? Update – amendment failed.
- A lot of worrying about the cost of audio equipment and staff time to record public business and put it online. Update – amendment passed.
- A lot of talk about wanting transparency but less support for legislation that might enable it.
- And last minute legal advice that means the Minister of the Environment will be opposing some clauses in his own bill.
I posted my views on the accountability and transparency aspects of the original Local Government Bill back in November based on experiences making occasional trips down to Lisburn Council meetings, the difficulty in sourcing council minutes over the years, English legislation to make council meetings easily reportable, and also based on what I saw of open government in Louisville Metro and Kentucky back in September 2012.
The contributions and interventions from members right across the political spectrum are a mixture of fascinating and frightening. Aside from the official record, you can follow it live from the Assembly and watch back via BBC Democracy Live.
Not long before the Assembly suspended its sitting for lunch, the DUP’s Pam Cameron described the Alliance amendment to record council meetings and archive the audio as “invasive”. Update – invasive, but now part of the bill as only the DUP voted against the amendment and they didn’t deploy a petition of concern to block it.
[Mrs Cameron:] For me, amendment No 22 is more invasive, as it requires the council to make audio recordings of meetings and to retain this information for a period of six years, as I mentioned, and to include it on the website. This, for me, is truly in the realms of Big Brother-style scrutiny. It is excessive and, I would have thought, unreasonably costly to implement and manage. In reality, the prospect of this service being routinely availed of is, in my opinion, low to non-existent and is not required to be part of this Bill.
Party colleague Lord Morrow later summarised one aspect of the problem with existing councils when he said:
[Lord Morrow:] There was not an avalanche of members of the public coming into meetings of the council that I served on for some years. As a matter of fact, if you got 10 a year, that would have been rated as a high number.
The draft Hansard report deserves to be read to put the resulting debate in context. (I’ve highlighted some sections.)
Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for giving way. I suspected that he had forgotten about me.
I do not know what councils Mr McCrea or Anna Lo has served on and what vast experience of local government they bring to this. However, there are Members sitting right around the Chamber today who bring a lot of experience of local government. Basil McCrea is maybe getting a wee bit lost. There was not an avalanche of members of the public coming into meetings of the council that I served on for some years. As a matter of fact, if you got 10 a year, that would have been rated as a high number.
There has never been any attempt to make councils some sort of clandestine meeting point, where all these major decisions are taken in a secret conclave or something like that. Meetings are open, transparent and there for the public who want to come. After all, are the councillors not also there as gatekeepers on behalf of the ratepayers?
Mr Dickson made the point very validly and well — although I think that he was trying to emphasise another point — when he eulogised his own council and the amount of transparency that exists in its operations. It is no different in any other council. There is openness, transparency, freedom of information questions and everything else that is available, so I ask Mr McCrea and Anna Lo to take that on board. I noticed that both of them shook their heads, and Anna Lo, at least, said that she has no experience at all of how a council works. I do not know whether Mr McCrea can clarify what experience he has.
Mr B McCrea: I am happy to clarify that I was elected to council in 2005 and that I served until 2011. His colleagues will testify to that point.
Ms Lo: Will the Member give way so that I can respond to Lord Morrow?
Mr B McCrea: Indeed.
Ms Lo: Thank you. No, I have never been in council. I came straight into the Assembly, but I certainly have heard plenty of complaints, particularly, for example, about Castlereagh.
Mr B McCrea: I am happy to accommodate the Chair in getting that on the record.
I am somewhat disappointed for Lord Morrow that there was not an avalanche of people who wished to come to his council to listen to him speak. I am sure that he has been quite entertaining. Maybe, given the pearls of wisdom that he quite often favours us with, if people got to hear more of what he has to say, they might become more engaged in these matters. We certainly had some very lively debates in Lisburn City Council, and hearing what had gone on would have been to the benefit of people.
I have to say that I think that you are protesting at the wrong things. We should have more open and transparent government, and the same standards that we have here for the Northern Ireland Assembly should apply to local government. I have absolutely no doubt that Members opposite have nothing to fear and nothing to hide, so why not let us see if we can engage? It is not compulsory to watch the proceedings of the Assembly, but I can tell you that some people are doing it.
I also have to make one very important point that comes across when we make material available. Mr Boylan talked about the fact that the Committee had had the opportunity to review proceedings in some detail but that other Members might not. The benefit for me was that I was able to go and look at all the proceedings and the information that was available. I was able to go back and see what had been said, and I was able to read the Committee report. I found that entirely useful, and that is part of the process of having information available. It is good to have things on the record to find out what people have said.
The argument about the cost of audio recordings is almost like saying that elections are a bit expensive as well. This is an engagement in democracy. We should take the opportunity to make it open and transparent and say that we have nothing to hide; look at all the new things that we are going to be doing.
Mr McCallister: Will the Member give way?
Mr B McCrea: I will.
Mr McCallister: Does he also agree that Lord Morrow is almost saying that we are setting the standards high enough as it is and that we do not need to go any further? We are devolving more powers to these councils, particularly in planning, which I am on record as not being supportive of. Is it not incumbent on us to ensure that, when planning in particular goes to councils, there is openness and transparency to ensure that that is all above board and is following the correct procedures and planning policies?
Mr B McCrea: I thank the Member for his contribution. One of the points that we will be looking at is that we may move to some form of Cabinet-style decision-making. The legislation proposes currently having only four members as a minimum, and you might get a situation in the future where four people make all the decisions but it is done behind closed doors and we are not allowed to go and find out what the thought process is.
I will give one other issue that I hope that colleagues will take up at Further Consideration Stage. I do not think that councils should be going into closed session for anything other than matters to do with an individual or a specific commercial activity. The press talk about this incessantly and pick up on the fact that, in many councils, too much of our business is done behind closed doors. Too much of it goes through on the nod: you say that a report was accepted or whatever. We need more openness and transparency. We should put it all out there and let the citizens decide what is of interest to them, rather than trying to censor them.
Much later in proceedings, TUV MLA Jim Allister spoke out in favour of more openness:
Mr Allister: … On amendment No 22, I really do not see the difficulty with having an audio recording of council meetings. My sole criticism of the amendment was already voiced; namely, that it seeks to restrict itself and exclude committees and subcommittees. I endorse the view that if proposed new clause 48A finds favour with the House, it should be further refined.
I have a concern about its application, and here I stray for a moment into the next section of the debate. If we have councils operating to a Cabinet style, it seems to me that the amendment, if passed, would not apply there. It would apply only to the full council meeting, and there perhaps is another gap there when it comes to the amendment’s application.
Mr Dickson clarified that the new clause covers audio recording only, and the recording, if I read the amendment correctly, would stay on a council’s website for two years and be held in archive for six years. A citizen could therefore play back the recording and hear what was and was not said about a matter.
I have heard some say — I think that it was Mrs Lewis who suggested it in the House — to let each council decide for itself. That would be a recipe for grievance. Take my constituency, which will be in two council areas. Are my constituents in, say, Ballymena to be afforded the option of audio recording of the new Mid and East Antrim District Council so that they can hear what is said, while my constituents in, say, Ballymoney, who belong to the Causeway Coast and Glens District Council area, are to be denied that facility? I can well anticipate the sense of grievance that that would create, where there are different applications according to different councils. So, I do not think that it is an answer to leave it to each council to make up its own mind. It is a relatively straightforward issue in this day and age, and it does not go beyond expectations that what is said in a council should form a permanent audio record.
I do not believe that to do this would be excessively expensive. Any council chamber that I know is already equipped, as this Chamber is, with microphones and all the facilities of amplification. It is a straightforward matter of simply recording what the microphones pick up and retaining the audio. I certainly would not expect the cost to run into tens of thousands of pounds. However, if it were to cost a few pounds, perhaps it could be paid for by having one fewer council junket a year. That might be a simple way of paying for it. It really is a straw man to suggest that it will cost a prohibitive amount of money to do. That is stretching a point until it becomes absolutely ludicrous. Therefore, I see no difficulty with amendment No 22, other than it does not go far enough.
Update – Amendment 22 for councils to make audio recordings of public meetings available was passed. However, Amendment 20 which sought to allow members of the public to take photographs, use any means to view or hear proceedings (at the time or later) and to make oral reports on the proceedings as they take place was not supported.
48A.—(1) So far as is reasonably practicable, a council must make an audio recording of so much of any meeting of the council as is open to the public and the recording must be available to the public at the offices of the council until the expiration of the period of six years from the date of the meeting and published on the council website until the expiration of the period of two years from the date of the meeting.
(2) This section does not apply in relation to meetings of any committee or sub-committee of the council.”.— [Ms Lo.]
Question put, That amendment No 22 be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 62; Noes 34.
Mr Agnew, Mr Allister, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Mr D Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Byrne, Mrs Cochrane, Mr Copeland, Mr Cree, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dobson, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Ford, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hazzard, Mr Hussey, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCallister, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr B McCrea, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McKinney, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr A Maginness, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Mr Nesbitt, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mrs Overend, Mr P Ramsey, Mr Rogers, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan, Mr Swann.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Dickson and Ms Lo
Mr Anderson, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Anderson and Mr G Robinson
Question accordingly agreed to.
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.