Yesterday, communities secretary Eric Pickles generated a fair amount of Press with his new guidelines around public access to the decision-making process at local councils.
A lot of it will be very familiar to journalists who cover councils: How council meetings work, what access you can expect and what you can request council officers to provide.
The big headline was that Mr Pickles was reminding councils that they should allow people to cover council meetings live and film them too.
Like many of Mr Pickles’ previous pushes around transparency within Town Halls – such as demanding the end of council newspapers and insisting all councils publish spending data over £500 – there doesn’t appear to be a law behind the new demands around filming, just an expectation that local politicians and council bosses will do what the minister tells them.
As an approach to working with local government, it’s generally been effective for Mr Pickles. Only Nottingham City Council refuses to publish council spending data (as far as I can tell), arguing it costs too much money to justify – and ironically wasting a lot of time and money arguing with government about the fact too.
As for council newspapers, many have folded, or reduced in frequency. A hardcore few remain, and Mr Pickles now plans to ensure the remaining ones are closed down by backing up the publicity code of practice with legislation.
So there, hopefully, is proof that what Mr Pickles wants, Mr Pickles gets.
And that could yet be good news for those of us worried about the future of the Freedom of Information Act, under threat from a ‘tightening up’ process which would give local authorities the power to more freely reject FOI requests on cost grounds, and also enable them to bundle requests from similar people together and treat them as one. For journalists, this is effectively the death knell for FOI.
So why is Mr Pickles latest missive about access to democracy a good thing? Within the document circulated yesterday, Mr Pickles’ department deals with how to get information which isn’t disclosed run-of-mill through council meetings (these days, that means most of it):
Also, you have the right to request information held by your council by submitting Freedom
of Information Act requests to your council (a similar regime exists in relation to
environmental information under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004).
Information on Freedom of Information Act is available on the Information Commissioner’s Office website at: http://ico.org.uk/
This, in itself, doesn’t tell us much – other than that Mr Pickles’ department believe people should use the Freedom of Information Act to get information. But coupled with Mr Pickles’ reaction to questions about the proposed shackling of FOI when he appeared at the recent Society of Editors regional conference, I’m beginning to believe there’s a chance we’ve got a voice at the top table in support of maintaining FOI as it is.
Mr Pickles was challenged from the floor – it may have been by Neil Fowler, the former editor of the Journal and Western Mail newspapers – about why he was, on one hand, urging newspapers to hold councils to account while being part of a government trying to curb FOI access, he failed to back the Government’s proposals.
Instead, he urged people to ensure the Government knew their views once the consultation was launched. When pressed again, he repeated his suggestion about using the consultation. The political reporter of old in me reads that as a minister trying to make his view known without contradicting his colleagues.
As things stand, the consultation has not yet been launched. The Campaign for Freedom of Information has been very active regardless, and an Early Day Motion opposing the proposed changes has the support of 81 MPs so far.
A government which is on one hand telling councils how to be more open and accountable, while on the other hand removing the main tool it is promoting people use to make councils accountable, would be a very foolish government indeed – and I think it’s fair to say Mr Pickles is more than aware of that.