Why can’t I film meetings at my council?

This blog post was updated on the 15 July due to new legislation being passed.

There have been a number of media reports, from 2011 onwards, regarding individuals who have attempted to film council meetings on their cameras or mobile phones and have been prevented from doing so by the council (for example, see here*).

Following the publication of a number of pieces of guidance, the Government addressed this issue in the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014. This has led to some erroneous media reports that councils must now allow filming by members of the public. This is not correct. The 2014 Act does not oblige councils to allow filming: it allows the Secretary of State to make regulations to oblige councils to allow filming. This has not yet been done, and until it is, filming of a council meeting is at the discretion of the council itself.

Still more confusingly, the provisions on filming in the 2014 Act only cover England, not Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Welsh Government encourages local authorities to permit filming, but there is no right to do so (Recommended Code of Practice on Local Authority Publicity for Wales, 2013, pages 8-9). Neither is there any right to film in Scotland or Northern Ireland, though Northern Irish councils are now required to keep an audio recording of full council meetings on their website for two years (Local Government Act 2014, section 47).

Reasons given for preventing filming

Some councils have refused to allow filming by members of the public on the grounds that it could constitute a breach of data protection; that it amounted to disruption of the meeting; or on health and safety grounds. The Government has rejected data protection as a valid objection. Objections on health and safety grounds have been featured in the Health and Safety Executive’s ‘Mythbusters‘ series. There have been instances of police being called to remove members of the public who refused to stop filming after being requested to do so.

A letter sent in February 2011 by Bob Neill, then minister for local government, signalled the Government’s support for such activities:

There are recent stories about people being ejected from council meetings for blogging, tweeting or filming. This potentially is at odds with the fundamentals of democracy and I want to encourage all councils to take a welcoming approach to those who want to bring local news stories to a wider audience. The public should rightly expect that elected representatives who have put themselves up for public office be prepared for their decisions to be as transparent as possible and welcome a direct line of communication to their electorate.

Further Government guidance was produced in July 2013: Your council’s cabinet: going to its meetings, seeing how it works. This guidance was mainly about council cabinets, but it supported the general principle of filming.

Nevertheless, reports continued of filming being prevented. The Government therefore decided to take powers to require councils to allow filming, in section 40 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014. Section 40 allows the Secretary of State to make regulations permitting people to film or make audio recordings of a council meeting, or to use other means to enable people elsewhere to see or hear the meeting; or to report from a meeting in real time.

Until the changes are brought in…

Until regulations are made under this section, the key legislation is section 100A of the Local Government Act 1972 (for parish councils, identical provisions exist in the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960):

(7) Nothing in this section shall require a principal council to permit the taking of photographs of any proceedings, or the use of any means to enable persons not present to see or hear any proceedings (whether at the time or later), or the making of any oral report on any proceedings as they take place.

(8) This section is without prejudice to any power of exclusion to suppress or prevent disorderly conduct or other misbehaviour at a meeting.

So at the time of writing, councils cannot be obliged to permit meetings to be filmed. But equally, the law as it stands does not require them to prevent filming from taking place: the decision lies in the hands of individual councils. Some councils may mention filming in their standing orders: for instance, the standing orders may prevent filming outright, or may require a period of notice to be given. This is their right unless and until regulations are brought in.

Many councils webcast their meetings and/or make videos of meetings available after they have taken place, alongside electronic access to the meeting documents.

UPDATE:

The Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 passed through the House of Lords on 1 July 2014 and the House of Commons on 2 July 2014. They will come into force on 6 August 2014, applying to England only.

The regulations state that members of the public may film, take photographs, or make audio recordings of meetings; provide oral or written commentary on a meeting as it takes place; and use any other methods to enable people not at the meeting to follow proceedings, either as they take place or afterwards.

The regulations provide that councils are not required to permit ‘oral reporting or oral commentary’ during a meeting by someone present at the meeting. This is to prevent meetings from being disrupted by background reporting or commentary.

Councils have powers to exclude the public from meetings if items of a confidential nature are being discussed, or where publicity might be ‘prejudicial to the public interest’. The new regulations do not overrule this power.

Mark Sandford

* Some other instances of individuals being prevented from filming council meetings are recounted in Sussex Express; Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough); and Richard Taylor’s blog.