“Secretive councils shut out reporters with ‘elaborate ruse’ ” [one our council is fond of]

And EDDC with its “working groups” (eg Knowle sale and relocation, regeneration groups, the notorious East Devon Business forum, etc). Here is a list of its “other panels and forums” most of which meet behind closed doors with no public minutes:

http://eastdevon.gov.uk/council-and-democracy/committees-and-meetings/other-panels-and-forums/

“Councils across the country are trying to evade scrutiny by restricting media access to meetings.

One authority has ordered that sensitive information be shared only on an overhead screen to prevent leaks, while Nottinghamshire county council used an “elaborate” ruse to bar journalists from a crucial meeting to discuss plans to dissolve district and borough councils and create a new super-council.

Rather than debate the proposals in public, the council established a “working group” to discuss the plans behind closed doors. The council’s constitution requires committee meetings to be accessible to the press, but working groups operate outside the transparency rules.

“It’s a political sleight of hand,” Mike Sassi, editor of the Nottingham Post, said. “They are behaving in a high-handed fashion, which just reinforces every reservation people have about modern-day politicians. It was an elaborate, detailed and thought-out attempt to circumvent transparency.”

The council’s secrecy drive failed after the working group’s discussion documents and minutes were leaked to Kit Sandeman, a reporter for the Post and the BBC. The Post has complained to the local government ombudsman.

Lucy Ashton, a reporter for the BBC, The Star and Sheffield Telegraph, was challenged at a consultation at a pub to canvass residents’ views on a redevelopment. Two city council officers were “very unhappy”, she said.

“The director said, ‘We weren’t aware you were coming. Have you informed the press office?’ I said ‘No, I don’t need to, it’s a public meeting.’ ” Ms Ashton said that it was the first time in 25 years of reporting that she had faced such hostility at a council meeting. She said: “Nowadays everything needs to go through the press office. A few years ago I would have rung a planning officer directly. All that’s gone now.” The council press office apologised to Ms Ashton and pledged to ensure that reporters felt welcome at future events.

Nottinghamshire council said that the reorganisation had already been debated three times at public meetings and that the working group had no decision-making powers. Kay Cutts, council leader, said: “There was no requirement on the council to set up a working group — it was set up solely in the interests of transparency. The working group is intended as a way of engaging members from all political groups on progress of the work.”

South Ayrshire council in Scotland has sent members on mandatory confidentiality training and restricted sending out written reports to prevent leaks.

Instead, documents containing confidential information will only be displayed on an overhead screen during council meetings. The measures were required to protect commercially sensitive and personal information, the council said.

Rules for open government:

• Journalists are allowed to report from all council meetings and given “reasonable facilities”. Guidelines state: “Councils should support freedom of the press within the law and not seek to restrict those who may write critical comments.”

• Councils must give at least five days’ notice of their meetings and publish an agenda in advance.

• Press and public can be excluded if the council decides that confidential or “exempt” information is likely to be disclosed. Members of the public can be expelled to maintain orderly conduct.

• Councils can get round the transparency rules by classifying specific meetings as “working groups”, rather than committees.

Source:The Times (pay wall)

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