Thursday 8 October 2009

The Barnet Secret Service

Don’t Call Me Dave has written previously about the unhealthy culture of secrecy which permeates through every fibre of the council’s being.

Not The Barnet Times reader, 'baarnett', posted a comment earlier this week highlighting a particular problem regarding the council’s ban on the recording of public meetings. You can read baarnett’s letter to the council here.

The council is relying on a decision taken by the Planning & Resources Committee in October 1993 to prohibit recordings. Click on the image below to enlarge.

The Committee’s decision was based on an earlier decision taken by the General Purposes Committee in November 1983. Click here to download the report. The council had considered a suggestion from Cllr John Rawles to allow recordings of public meetings (by the council itself) but the idea was not pursued.

The interesting point to note from this report is that there were no “relevant previous decisions” which means that the council did not actually have a policy regarding public recordings.

In the early 1980s it is highly unlikely that members of the press or public would have wanted to record meetings because tape recorders were bulky and expensive and digital storage was the stuff of science fiction! So it is not really a surprise that there was no resolution in 1983 prohibiting something that people were not doing - or even thinking of doing!

In 1993 the then Chief Executive said that unless councillors agreed on a formal policy to allow meetings to be recorded: “this would continue not to be permitted”. But for this to hold true, the council must have passed a resolution sometime between November 1983 and October 1993.

As a general rule of thumb, everything is permitted unless a law is passed saying that it isn't! So if the council believes that the public recording of meetings is prohibited, it must demonstrate that a resolution has been passed outlawing such action.

Don’t Call Me Dave raised this matter with Mike Freer last year. DCMD asked the leader of the council whether he supported the ban on public recording. On 3rd March 2008, Cllr Freer replied (spelling corrected):
“I do not support members of the public recording off their own bat - we would have no control over cutting and splicing. Recording by the council under correct supervision is fine.”
Anyone reading that comment could easily be mistaken for thinking that Cllr Freer is a Socialist embracing nanny state ideology. There is not the slightest shred of evidence that the public would make improper use of any recordings and the suggestion that only the council can be trusted to make recordings is more in keeping with an old fashioned regime from behind the iron curtain than a forward looking and enlightened English democratic council.

Given that you can record about 24 hours worth of conversation on an audio CD costing 10p, the council could easily record all public meetings, and if a member of the public did try to “splice” their own recording, they would quickly be found out - assuming that the council itself could be trusted not to selectively edit the disks.

Camden Council not only records its meetings, but makes them available for public download from their web site. The Government, the European Parliament and many other public authorities do likewise, so you have to wonder why Barnet Council considers itself so important that it can operate a blanket ban precisely when other institutions are opening themselves up to greater scrutiny.

The public has an absolute right to observe meetings of the Council and there is nothing in law which says that public meetings cannot be recorded. Given that many residents, especially the disabled, do not have access to the Town Hall, public recordings are entirely justifiable and beneficial for democracy.

At a time when the standing of politicians is at an all time low, restricting public scrutiny of proceedings will only add to suspicions that the council has something to hide. It seems a poor state of affairs that local councils now have the power to bug our phones as a measure to prevent fly-tipping, but the public cannot make a recording of a public meeting.

In 2002, former leader Victor Lyon promised an open an honest administration. That is hardly consistent with a council which seeks to uphold a 26 year old regulation - if indeed such a regulation even exists. A fundamental aspect of democracy is that politicians are our servants, not our masters. The moment they come to think of themselves as the masters, we are on the road to tyranny.


Duncan Macdonald said...

The Lib Dem group policy item proposed web casting of council meetings at the last council meeting. This could take the form of a podcast or youtube video. The Tory argument was that the cost could not be justified. They conveniently forgot that the council already videos and posts on the web the leader listens meetings, so they have the equipment and the ability to do this for very little cost.

Richard Weider said...

I agree it is about time council meetings were recorded in some way.

I was shocked when elected that there is no record of what councillors say or how they vote. Councillors are representatives of the public and are paid for by the public, so the public should know how they are being represented by their councillors.

Anonymous said...

Richard Weider is 100% right.

... as is David Cameron in calling for openness and accountability, as is Parliament in broadcasting its affairs, and the Greater London Authority, and the European Parliament and was is Margaret Thatcher (who called in her maiden speech for Counacil's to be opened up).

The same fusty fuddy duddy attitude, as demonstrated in Mike Freer's quote, was displayed when secretive Councillors fiercely argued against their papers being published and their meetings being held in public.

Now, as then, they will have to be *metaphorically* dragged kicking and screaming into the daylight.

Why, oh, why can we not have a modern proper Conservative administration.

When Lynne Hillan takes over, next month, things will get even worse.