Andrew Allison is the Campaign Manager of the Freedom Association
One of the greatest feelings you get as a political campaigner is when you help change the law. Indeed, fighting for change is what politics is about, and I was delighted that one of my final achievements when working for the TaxPayers’ Alliance was a change in the law that gave the Secretary of State the power to allow residents to record, blog, and tweet at council meetings. This was after a report I authored exposed the alarming number of councils in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire who were preventing local residents from reporting and recording proceedings.
This week Eric Pickles has signed those powers into law, and those councils that have thus far refused to change their constitutions have had it forced on them.
Now I don’t for one moment think that masses of people will now descend on town halls across the country armed with their smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers, however this does mark a sea change in the way councils treat the people they serve. There have been many instances of people being forcibly removed and arrested for trying to record what is be debated in their name. It is not unusual to be given a sheet of paper when you enter a public gallery warning you that if you try and record or report anything that is going on in the chamber, you will be removed.
At one meeting of my local council, officers watched me intently to see if I was breaking the rules by making an illicit recording, and late last year, despite councillors knowing a change in the law was on the horizon, my council voted against greater scrutiny from the public. One councillor even said that if someone felt strongly enough about a subject being debated, they would take time off work to attend the meeting. He could not see any reason why you should make it easier for people to watch a webcast of proceedings. Try telling that to a shift worker who may lose a day’s pay. The arrogance of some councillors at that meeting was breath taking.
Whenever there are any contentious votes on matters that affect your community, please record what’s going on; write blogs about it, and keep local people up-to-date with tweets. If councillors know there are more people following the story live than there are in the public gallery, they may think twice about what they plan to say and how they plan to vote.
We all now have the power and the freedom in our hands to ensure there is greater scrutiny and accountability in town halls across the country.
This has been a good week for transparency.