Carmarthenshire County Council has caused a huge stir in some circles over the last couple of months. It began on Wednesday 8 June 2011 when a local campaigner and blogger, Jacqui Thompson was arrested by Dyfed Powys Police for filming a public council meeting on her mobile phone.
The Chair of the Council asked Ms Thompson to cease filming because it was not permitted by Council Standing Orders, a position which was later confirmed to be untrue. Ms Thompson has been requested not to film the meetings a number of times before this situation. After being detained by the police for around two hours Ms Thompson was later released without charge.
The story reared its ugly head again yesterday when another full meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council took place. It was alleged that members of the public were being required to sign undertakings that read as follows:
(PRINT FULL NAME)
hereby undertake not to record or film any meetings of the Council or its committees from the public gallery of the Council Chamber at County Hall, Carmarthen until and unless the policy relating to this is reviewed by the Council.
Furthermore, the doors to the gallery were locked meaning members of the public could not enter or leave the public gallery without requesting a member of staff from Carmarthenshire County Council coming to unlock the door.
What particularly attracted my attention to this was the alleged claim by Carmarthenshire County Council that this was a common practice to all council’s in Wales. So, I contacted a few and got a definitive answer straight away from one Council, Pembrokeshire County Council, that there was no such policy in place at its council while others are researching it and will get back to me.
I contacted the press office at Carmarthenshire County Council and sought a comment from them on it and a spokesman said the following:
The council is not stopping public access to its meetings. We are simply asking for an assurance from members of the public that they will not film any of the proceedings. This would inevitably result in a disruption to the meeting as they would be well aware that filming is not going to be allowed and that the chair would have to take action to deal with that .
There is no legal reason why the council cannot do this. This has been introduced as a result of recent events and an apparent continued campaign of disruption in the interest of securing publicity. The only people prejudiced are individuals who are demonstrating a clear intention to defy the Council’s rules. The Council has to make some provision to deal with this.
The introduction of the forms simply formalises the requirement that members of the public do not disrupt council proceedings. They were not needed previously. They have been introduced now as a direct result of Mrs Thompson’s persistent attempts to disrupt council meetings.
Mrs Thompson has caused repeated disruptions and has made false and malicious allegations about staff. She also refuses to agree to reasonable requests to abide by council procedures.
Mrs Thompson continues to be more than welcome to attend any council meetings, but only if she gives an undertaking that she will not disrupt proceedings.
It seems to me that the council and the police have acted quite illiberally in this matter and have most certainly not handled it in the most appropriate way. Members of the public should be free to come and go from council meetings which are open to the public as they please and council members should not be afraid of having the meeting recorded, after all proceedings in Westminster, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament are recorded and even broadcast live on occasions.
I am very much in favour of public scrutiny of the work carried out by our public servants, especially those who have been elected. In coalition government issued guidance to Councils in England. The following statement was included in that guidance:
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. I do hope that you and your colleagues will do your utmost to maximise the transparency and openness of your council.
Local government is a devolved matter to Wales and no such guidance exists to date that I can find and I was unable to speak to anyone at the Welsh Government who could advise as to whether this was the case or not.