Big Debate: Should the public be able to film council meetings?

Newham Town Hall, East Ham

Newham Town Hall, East Ham - Credit: Archant

Mayor of Newham Sir Robin Wales vs Mayor of Tower Hamlets Lutfur Rahman The Battle of east London’s mayors has begun over the controversy of whether to allow the public to film council meetings.

Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham

Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham - Credit: Archant

Tower Hamlets and Newham, on opposite sides of the same River Lea, appear to be on opposite sites of the same issue, for or against relaxing the rules.

Lutfur Rahman

Lutfur Rahman - Credit: Archant

Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s Tower Hamlets has been criticised in Parliament by Eric Pickles who threatens to use legislation to force him to let anyone film meetings, after an OAP in the public gallery was stopped from filming on his mobile phone. The mayor isn’t giving the public the green light, but suggests meetings could be streamed like Parliament.

By contrast, neighbouring Newham’s Labour Mayor Sir Robin Wales wants to open the floodgates and allow anyone to film his council meetings.

Mayor of Newham Sir Robin Wales

Newham Council has voted to allow filming of all future meetings of our council – including its committees – from our public gallery.

The public have placed their trust in us, to spend their money on services that matter to them.

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There is a very good reason why they are called “public” meetings. How could we therefore possibly argue that the public does not have the right to see democracy in action?

Our decision, to open up our democracy and engage further with our residents, is the opposite of what is going on at Tower Hamlets.

I watched – on the internet – appalled as Cabinet members and officers of Tower Hamlets council tried to silence an elderly community campaigner as he argued passionately for his right to film, and for others to be able to see the result.

What do the Mayor and Cabinet of Tower Hamlets have to hide? How can they possibly justify banning filming, Tweeting and live blogging of public meetings in the 21st century?

And what does it do to build public trust in politics more widely when a clique seeks to shut the public out from decisions made on their behalf?

Of course there should be sensible safeguards. Residents should be able to protect their privacy from those who seek to film.

Commercial negotiations and decisions cannot always be made in public.

But with common sense, the vast majority of our discussions and decisions can be opened to wider public scrutiny.

Labour leader Ed Miliband was right when he argued passionately for a new kind of politics to rebuild public confidence.

That has to based on values of openness, engagement and accountability.

A well-run and accountable council should have nothing to hide.

That is why Newham has made these changes.

In the 21st century it is not enough for democracy to simply happen. It has to be seen to happen.

Mayor of Tower Hamlets Lutfur Rahman

I am grateful to be asked where I stand on the filming of council cabinet meetings. For the record, and as a believer in open government, I am in favour of it—as long as it is governed by the same rules that govern the filming of Parliament.

As a believer in open government, I’m in favour of it – as long as it is governed by the same rules that govern the filming of Parliament. I’m also in favour of the filming of our full council meetings, providing they conform to standards set by Parliament, respecting the public who may not wish to appear on film, and filming only those speaking.

Our MP, Jim Fitzpatrick (Labour, Poplar and Limehouse), and his political ally Cllr Peter Golds (Conservative, Blackwall and Cubitt Town), have not asked me where I stand. This has not stopped them from trying to create a storm in a teacup, going to the press and Parliament with tales that do not represent my position.

Mr Fitzpatrick asked local government secretary Eric Pickles his opinion in Parliament, while taking a side-swipe at the council.

Sadly for him, Mr Pickles didn’t appear to know what his own policy was. It’s not compulsory for local authorities to allow filming, whatever the secretary of state may think. He seems to think that Cabinet meetings should be filmed while full council meetings should not. What logic is there in this?

That’s why, when we do it, we must get it right and at a cost that residents are prepared to pay.

The issue has come to prominence after a member of the public produced a camera phone at a meeting and was asked not to film.

This is because the council has yet to have a system in place for filming meetings and the public may not have wished to be filmed.

These concerns are those of Parliamentary authorities which is why the same individual would have been prevented from doing the same in the Commons.

I know Mr Pickles likes to be filmed eating burgers. But will he argue with David Cameron to allow cameras into Downing Street to film his Cabinet meetings? Or will Mr Fitzpatrick allow cameras in to film his parliamentary Labour Party meetings? Somehow I doubt it.

What do you think? Vote in our online poll and see the results in Wednesday’s newspaper.