In a move worthy of a totalitarian state, yesterday Shropshire Council confiscated cameras from members of the public attending its council meeting. It also prevented recording of the meeting. In doing so, it was in breach of national statutes which clearly state that recording should of meetings should be allowed without hindrance. I find it unbelievable in an age of supposedly open government that cameras were confiscated. The banning of recording was not legal. I can’t see that taking cameras away from members of the public was legal. Shropshire Council should make a public apology for its anti-democratic actions.
Yesterday morning more than 50 people from in and around Ludlow attended Shropshire Council’s meeting at Shirehall. They were there to challenge the council on ip&e, the council’s private company, and on the future of Church Stretton’s visitor information centre. In extraordinary moves, the council refused to allow members of the public to photograph a public meeting and even confiscated two cameras. This the most totalitarian action I have witnessed in more than forty years of attending council meetings.
Just before the council meeting commenced, a row broke out in the chamber, with members of the public saying the council was breaking the law. One member of the public pointed out they had a right to take photos and shouted: “We will continue to take photos as necessary.” Clive Betts, the Chief Executive, responded: “If you do film or protest then we may have to remove you from the room.” Roger Evans, leader of the Lib Dem group on the council stood to announce that both the Lib Dem and the Labour group were happy for the meeting to be recorded. He was greeted by disgraceful moans and groans from Tory members. Alan Moseley, leader of the Labour group said to applause: “We support democracy”. He called for an emergency motion permitting recording.
The meeting then descended into constitutional chaos.
Malcom Pate, taking the chair, said that people could film the meeting providing they complied with the terms and conditions which were laid on a table in the chamber. I can’t find a copy of these conditions anywhere online. A member of the public asked for the two cameras taken to be returned but Councillor Pate said: “No”. He warned that if anyone interrupts, he would adjourn the meeting and bar the public when it resumes. Councillor Moseley moved to suspend standing orders on videoing and recording. Councillor Pate said this was not a legal resolution but refused to say what legal advice he had been given.
As the formal business of the council got underway, David Lloyd was elected as Speaker. Councillor Mosely, not a man to give up easily, tried again to get the ban on recording lifted. The Speaker said the rules have been published for years and the crucial point is that people record for personal purposes but not use the recording for commercial gain. He made it clear that he supports recording of meetings and said in a perfection of bureaucratic obscurity: “The rules cover the eventuality.” It sounded to me like Councillor Lloyd didn’t agree one jot with the actions of council officers in banning recording by members of the public. Another attempt to have standing orders suspended and the cameras returned was rebuffed.
Everything that happened over this issue in the council chamber was in clear breach of the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 . In other words, I believe it was illegal.
The council says it was playing within its own standing orders. It is not surprising that members of the public were unaware of these rules. They are almost impossible to find on the council’s website, where they are buried in an obscure constitutional document called “Codes and Protocols”.
These are Shropshire Council’s rules which allow video and audio recording by members of the public. Photography is only permitted with prior notification. So video – which is a continuous sequence of photographs – is OK without permission but for still photography you have to apply two days in advance. The Chief Executive clearly said that if people film or take photographs, they may have to be removed. In this he was not even acting within the council’s standing orders, which clearly permit videoing. Here is what the Chief Exec said:
The communities department has published a very useful plain English guide to the national regulations that Shropshire Council is refusing to obey. The guide says:
Councils and other local government bodies are required to allow any member of the public to take photographs, film and audio-record the proceedings, and report on all public meetings.
Can Shropshire Council ignore the government rules? The answer is very clear:
It is a legal duty for the local government body to follow the new provisions. If a local government body’s existing Standing Orders are not fully in line with the new legislation, in the short-term, we recommend they simply waive the relevant provisions of those old Standing Orders which could be taken to inhibit the new reporting rules, and then take steps to update formally its Standing Orders.
None of that happened yesterday.
Shropshire Council hasn’t quite got the hang of how democracy works in our multi-media age. It hasn’t quite understood that legislation bans it from banning cameras or any other form of recording.
This council is quickly approaching the point of democratic failure. In one of the biggest turnouts at a Shropshire Council meeting for a long time, the basic tenets of modern democracy were denied yesterday.
I hope that the council will embrace and celebrate recording of future council meetings. It is time for this council to engage with twenty-first century democracy. It is also imperative that it engages with current legislation. It’s behaviour yesterday was disgraceful. It should apologise for the appalling way it treated members of the public who were acting within their legal and democratic rights.
Update: Shropshire Council’s explanation
The council issued this statement to the press at 9.15am this morning (15 May 2015):
Shropshire Council has issued the following statement following the meeting of full Council on Thursday 14 May 2015.
“Members of the public are very welcome to attend Shropshire Council meetings, and we are happy for them to photograph and film at these meetings.
“However, we do ask that people attending Council meetings act in a calm and responsible manner. Unfortunately, due to disruptive behaviour by a small number of people at today’s meeting it was necessary to confiscate their cameras for the duration of the meeting.
“Our current policy is that photographs and footage taken at Council meetings should be for personal use only. However, we are currently reviewing this policy to ensure that it is consistent with the national guidance, and will make any necessary changes.”
I find this statement utterly risible. Shropshire Council was breaking the law by banning cameras. And I can’t see any legal basis for taking cameras away from people. To blame members of the public for the council’s failure to act within the law is totally unacceptable.
I’ve been going to council meetings for forty plus years. I have never seen such disgraceful behaviour by officials and leading councillors as I saw yesterday.
 The Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 says:
(7) Any person who attends the [public council] meeting to report the proceedings may use any communication methods, including the internet, to publish, post or otherwise share the results of their reporting activities.
(8) Publication and dissemination may take place at the time of the meeting or occur after the meeting.
(9) For the purposes of this regulation, reporting on proceedings at a meeting means—
(a) filming, photographing or making an audio recording of the proceedings at the meeting,
(b) using any other means for enabling persons not present to see or hear proceedings at the meeting as it takes place or later, or
(c) reporting or providing commentary on proceedings at the meeting, orally or in writing, so that the report or commentary is available to persons not present, as the meeting takes place or later.