Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has announced that a new law will be put before Parliament to give the press and public new rights to film and report council meetings.
The legal changes to be sent to Parliament by Mr Pickles will enshrine in the law the right of residents, bloggers and journalists to report, blog, tweet and film council meetings in England.
The new laws will be part of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, which is set to be debated by MPs in the House of Commons on Monday, having completed its Lords stages.
The Bill will abolish the residual parts of the Audit Commission; protect local press from taxpayer funding town hall propaganda sheets; and close legal loopholes so that all of the Council Tax bill is fully accountable to local taxpayers.
Last year, the government changed secondary legislation to open up councils’ executive meetings to the press and public. However, this did not apply to councils’ committee meetings or full council, nor to parish councils. Mr Pickles asked councils to open up their committee meetings, but many councils are still not complying.
A recent report from the TaxPayers’ Alliance revealed a number of councils in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire who were still keeping democracy behind closed doors. Some councils had even banned local residents from recording, blogging and tweeting at council meetings. Ministers believe these councils are clinging to outdated analogue ideals in the face of a digital age.
Mr Pickles said: “An independent local press and robust public scrutiny is essential for a healthy local democracy. We have given councils more power, but local people need to be able to hold their councils to account. We are taking action against town hall Pravdas which are undermining the independent free press, but I want to do more to help the new cadre of hyper-local journalists and bloggers.
“I asked for councils to open their doors, but some have slammed theirs shut, calling in the police to arrest bloggers and clinging to old-fashioned standing orders. Councillors should not be shy about the good work that they do.
“This new right will be the key to helping bloggers and tweeters as well as journalists to unlocking the mysteries of local government and making it more transparent for all. My department is standing up for press freedom.”
On 14 June 2013, Eric Pickles published a new guide for local residents explaining how they can attend and report their local council meetings. The new guidance explicitly states that councils should allow the public to film, blog and tweet council meetings.
The new legislation applies to all councils in England.