Last week, I wrote about the potential scope for intervention measures by the Secretary of State against Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) following their authority’s inability to provide leadership after the Grenfell Fire Disaster. The adverse publicity surrounding the authority and its handling of the crisis should have provided a wake-up call in terms of leadership and how it manages its relations with wider public. So it was somewhat surprising that the Authority remains in hot water following an attempt to stop the public from attending a scheduled cabinet meeting, including a legal judgement overturning that ban and scorn from Downing Street.
As most monitoring officers and councillors will be aware, there are strict rules governing public attendance. So it is surprising that RKBC attempted to block public access.
Council meetings and committee meetings are formal events, not social occasions. They have a clear purpose – to make decisions – and are not just talking shops. Furthermore, they are public events; the meetings must be advertised and the press and public have a right to observe how the council operates. Exceptions are when sensitive issues are discussed (such as legal, contractual or staffing matters) and then the council can agree to exclude the press and public for just that item of business. They are not to be closed to the public at a council leader or monitoring officer’s whim.
The rules governing public access are defined under Section 100(A)(4) of the Local Government Act 1972, which states that the public (including the press) may be excluded from Council meetings if exempt information relating to one of the following paragraphs of Schedule 12A to the Act is likely to be disclosed. Section 12A sets out the following matters which shall be considered as private:
- Para 1 “Information relates to a particular employee, former employee, applicant to become an employee, office holder, former office holder or applicant to become an office holder.”
- Para 3 “Information relates to a particular occupier or former occupier of, or applicant for, the Council’s accommodation.”
- Para 4 “Information relates to a particular applicant for, recipient or former recipient of a service”.
- Para 5 “Information relates to a particular applicant for, recipient or former recipient of financial assistance”.
- Para 7 “Information relates to the financial or business affairs of a particular person.”
- Para 8 “Information relates to the amount of expenditure proposed to be incurred under a particular contract for the acquisition of property, or the supply of goods or services.” (see footnote 1 below)
- Para 9 “Information relates to terms proposed or to be proposed in the course of negotiations for a contract for acquisition or disposal of property, or the supply of goods or services.” (see footnote 2 below)
- Para 10 “Information relates to the identity of the Council as offering a particular tender for a contract for supply of goods or services.”
- Para 11 “Information relates to current or contemplated consultations or negotiations in connection with a labour relations matter arising between the Council and employees or office holders of the Council.” (see footnote 3 below)
- Para 12 “Information relates to instructions to, or opinion of, Counsel and advice received, information obtained or action to be taken in connection with legal proceedings by or against the Council, or the determination of a matter affecting the Council
- Para 13 “Information would reveal a proposed notice, order or direction under an enactment.” (see footnote 4 below)
- Para 14 “Information relates to action taken, or to be taken, in connection with the prevention, investigation or prosecution of a crime.”
- Para 15 “Information would reveal identity of a protected informant.”
Under these rules, it is possible that the authority deemed paragraph 12 as grounds to restrict public access. Yet, it is an authority that is facing an internal crisis as well as having to handle the aftermath of Britain’s most serious fire this century. So it is possibly beggar’s belief that they attempted to exclude public access.
Not only are the public to be admitted to public council meetings unless exempted by Section 12A, but they are also subject to further restrictions on information they can withhold by means of The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements)(Meetings and Access to Information)(England) Regulations 2012. The 2012 regulations created a presumption that all meetings of the executive, its committees and subcommittees are to be held in public (regulation 3) unless a narrowly defined legal exception applies. A meeting will only be held in private if confidential information would be disclosed, or a resolution has been passed to exclude the public because exempt information is likely is be disclosed, or a lawful power is used to exclude the public in order to maintain orderly conduct at the meeting (regulation 4). In the past councils could cite political advice as justification for closing a meeting to the public and press, or state that decisions being made were not ‘key decisions’. The new regulations create a presumption that all meetings of the executive, its committees and subcommittees are to be held in public. Clearly, in the instance of any decision related to Grenfell, it would have to be regarded as a ‘key decision’.
Philip Whiteman is a Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the impact of central government and regulators on the role, service delivery and performance of local government and other local bodies.