Will this help to stop things being done in secret? – I wonder…….
1. The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 (the 2012 Regulations) will come into force on 10 September 2012. Changes include:
· Presumption in favour of openness: In the past councils could cite political advice as justification for closing a meeting to the public and press, or state that decisions being made were not ‘key decisions’. The new regulations create a presumption that all meetings of the executive, its committees and subcommittees are to be held in public (regulation 3) unless a narrowly defined legal exception applies. A meeting will only be held in private if confidential information would be disclosed, or a resolution has been passed to exclude the public because exempt information is likely is be disclosed, or a lawful power is used to exclude the public in order to maintain orderly conduct at the meeting (regulation 4).
– Confidential information is information provided to the council by a Government department upon terms which forbid disclosure to the public or information which statute or a court order prohibits from being disclosed to the public.
– Exempt information is set out in Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972 and it includes information about a person, or information that would reveal their identity, consultations or negotiations relating of labour relations, or information in connection with preventing and detecting crime.
· New legal rights for citizen reporters:Local authorities are now obliged to provide reasonable facilities for members of the public to report the proceedings as well as accredited newspapers (regulation 4). This will make it easier for new ‘social media’ reporting of council executive meetings thereby opening proceedings up to internet bloggers, tweeting and hyperlocal news forums.
· Holding private meetings: In the past council executives could hold meetings in private without giving public notice. Where a meeting is to be held in private, the executive or committee must provide 28 days notice during which the public may make representations about why the meeting should be held in public. Where the notice requirements for a private meeting and an agreement of the chairman of the relevant overview and scrutiny committee or chairman of the relevant local authority has been obtained, the decision-making body must publish a notice as soon as reasonably practicable explaining why the meeting is urgent and cannot be deferred (regulation 5).
· Less red tape for councils: Removing internal bureaucracy introduced by the last Government about ‘key decisions’, quarterly reports and ‘forward plans’. Instead, a document explaining the key decision to be made, the matter in respect of which a decision would be made, the documents to be considered before the decision is made, and the procedures for requesting details of those documents, has to be published (regulations 9).
· Special urgent decision: Where it is impossible to meet the publication requirements before a key decision is made and an agreement has been obtained from the chairman of the relevant overview and scrutiny committee or the relevant local authority to make the key decision, the decision maker must publish a notice to explain the reasons why the making of the decision is urgent (regulation 11). Previously no notice was required.
· Stronger rights of individual councillors: Where an executive has in its the possession a document that contains materials relating to a business to be discussed at a public meeting, members of the local authority have additional rights to inspect such a document at least five days before the meeting (regulation 16). Previously no timescale existed.
· Stronger rights for scrutiny members: Where the executive decides not to release the whole or part of a document to a member of an overview and scrutiny committee as requested by a councillor, it must provide a written statement to explain the reasons for not releasing such document (regulation 17).
· Publication requirement: Publication of any notice by a decision-making body or a proper officer; or any document in relation to a key decision or public meeting and background papers must be on the relevant local authority’s website (regulations 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 14, 15, and 21).
1. The Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 opened up meetings to the public, allowing members of the public and press to attend meetings of certain public bodies including councils. Margaret Thatcher was the backbench MP who championed this as a Private Members Bill.
2. Part 5A of the Local Government Act of 1972 applies to access to meetings and documents of the full council and committees of the councils. It states that ‘duly accredited representatives of newspapers’ should be afforded ‘reasonable facilities’ to attend council meetings ‘for the purpose of reporting proceedings for those newspapers’. It also sets out that for those parts of council meetings that are open to the public, councils are prevented from ejecting members of the public unless they are guilty of disorderly conduct or other ‘misbehaviour’.
3. The Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 provides for greater public access to local authority meetings reports and documents subject to specified confidentiality provisions; to give local authorities duties to publish certain information; and for related purposes