22 July 2011

Kicked out of Cardiff Council

Earlier today, July 21st, I attended a meeting of Cardiff Council as a member of the general public, but was ejected, in violation of the most fundamental claims of democracy on the Council's part, and despite having caused no disruption to the Council's proceedings and complying with every reasonable rule of the Council to the best of my ability.

My friend and comrade Ramon Corria, in his capacity as secretary of Cardiff Trades Council, had submitted a question to the full Council regarding the upcoming plans for cuts to library services. I reasoned that, given previous Council equivocation on the subject, it would be useful to be able to hold the members to account in their responses -- I mean, these people work for us, we pay their salaries. So I started up the camera application on my Dell Streak (not an iPhone as Peter John Law reported — I run open source!) and began recording as the Lord Mayor, Delme Bowen, called the Council into business.

I've been aware of the "#daftarrest", the arrest of a community campaigner in Carmarthenshire for videoing a public council meeting in which members were discussing the closure of Noddfa Teilo Day Club, since it happened . Carmarthenshire is a no-overall-control Council, and in Wales those have a habit of going a bit mad. "But Cardiff is a Lib Dem-Plaid coalition", I thought to myself. "I may disagree with them politically about most things, but they'd never be quite so dumb as to ban the recording ofa public meeting!"

We made it as far as the ritual prayer before the Mayor halted proceedings and ordered me to leave for recording the proceedings. Cardiff Council security entered the public gallery and ordered me to leave. I repeatedly challenged them as to which rule they were applying; they did not answer but only ordered me again to leave the gallery. I demanded to see a person in a position of authority.

After a brief wait outside the public gallery, I was approached by Gill Nurton, who identified herself as the Executive member for Committee and Member Services. She asserted it was Council policy (not law) to forbid recording of sessions but, again, was unable to name which regulation stipulates this.

Luckily, I was prepared, and was able to access the Council Constitution on my phone. Ms Nurton pointed out a number of accessibility issues with the Constitution -- it's a large document, in pdf format, and difficult to find one's way around. (By the way, as a non-Welsh speaking person who supports bilingualism, I should point out that there doesn't seem to be a Welsh version of the constitution online. When you try to get one, even though the URL says "CYM" in it, you get the English version. While I'm not a lawyer, I understand that this violates the Council's own Welsh Language Scheme and as such the Council is violating the Welsh Language Act 1993.) Ms Nurton herself got lost in the document several times and it was only by scrolling through page-by-page we finally found this, on page 109:

No recording shall be made of the proceedings of meetings of the Council whether audio or visual and by whatever method except with the express authorisation of the meeting. If a person records the proceedings of any meeting (or causes such recording to be effected) without authorisation then the Lord Mayor will order their removal from the meeting room and shall not permit them to be admitted to a further meeting except on a written undertaking to desist from such recording and on the destruction of such recordings as may have been made and anything derived from them.

There are a couple of big problems here.

Legally, the Council have obviously splashed this rule together without thought. Firstly, the Council contradicts itself; just a few pages earlier in the Constitution we find

Members of the public and press may only be excluded either in accordance with the Access to Information Procedure Rules or Rule 21 (Disturbance by Public).

which is a much more reasonable standard. What's more, I was let back into the Council meeting straight after speaking to Ms Nurton who had read the rule beside me just minutes before, so clearly the enforcement of the whole thing is arbitrary — a tool to intimidate members of the public, nothing more.

The biggest legal problem, though, is this: the Council requires a member of the public to ask & receive permission to record meetings, but sets out absolutely no procedure by which a member of a public can go about asking permission.

I can say this is a blatant omission because shortly before rule 22, we have rule 11, the procedure by which members of the public can ask questions in the Council (the rule Ramon used). That rule has eleven sections and twenty-seven subsections, with excruciating detail about the timetable by which one may submit questions, a constitutionally-designated person to whom the questions should be submitted, limits on how long may be set aside on the agenda to hear questions and how long questions may last for. Rule 22, in contrast, is, in its entirety, exactly as I posted it. I pressed Ms Nurton on this point, and she conceded that no, there is no procedure for requesting to record meetings, but there might be one in the future, she couldn't say when.

This is ridiculous. As far as I'm concerned, a rule which cannot possibly be complied with, as Rule 22 is, is not a rule.

The reason why Ramon was attending this particular Council meeting is relevant here. On June 16th, an associate of mine from Cardiff Against the Incinerator and I attended a meeting of the Environmental Scrutiny Meeting in County Hall to find out more about the Council's proposals for an anaerobic digestion facility in Rumney. Cardiff's citizens have the right to attend the Council's meetings (Article 3.1(b) of the Constitution, for those still keeping score) so my colleague and I were astonished to find, on inquiring at the front desk at County Hall, where the Committee was meeting and being told it was in a part of the building not accessible to the general public, behind security barriers.

Luckily the security person on duty was a believer in open government and a good trade unionist, and let us past the barriers on principle. When we arrived in the meeting, we found the Committee were discussing plans to cut jobs, close facilities and privatise libraries in Cardiff — plans that had not been described in any documents the Council circulated to the general public. In this meeting, Councillors from the ruling coalition treated suggestions that the public should be consulted thoroughly about controversial decisions with utter contempt.

Over a month later, the minutes of this meeting, including a record Cllr Mark Stephens' statements about privatising libraries and cutting jobs, still have not been released.

We have local elections coming up soon; the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is preparing a strong left challenge in Wales. But outside this once-every-few-years opportunity at the ballot box, how are we ever supposed to hold our local government to account if its members treat us like this?

Cardiff Council's effort at opening up its meetings to the public record, the webcast is tokenistic and inadequate. Not only is the software clunky and the interface slow, every time the Council makes something available only a bulky online format in they exclude huge segments of the population: the many thousands of poor and elderly without broadband Internet access. This fact, alongside the Council's now-public plans to cut the mobile libraries, reinforce what many residents have been saying for years, that the administration simply doesn't want the working class to be part of this city's dialogue or its political life.

Cardiff Council's rule is nonsensical. There is no reason why a resident of an area should not be able to record a public meeting of their own representatives; the act can do no possible harm to democracy. Is the right to hold government to account another town common, another Bute Park to be chopped into pieces and ruined?

Cardiff Council's rule is arbitary. Video recording is merely photography in motion. Will the Council ban photography? Audio recording is merely very precise recording of words. Will the Council ban note-taking?

Cardiff Council's rule is, finally, unenforceable. Naming no names, I know for a fact that another person in the Council chamber was recording the events of the meeting surreptitiously, even while I was being led out by security for recording openly.

It is a principle that residents should not have to resort to covert means simply to make a record of what their own representatives say. Any person who calls themselves a liberal, or a democrat, should, if those words mean anything, viscerally oppose the rule that Cardiff's Liberal Democrats have made use of.

I hope the current administration will fall in the upcoming elections. But in Cardiff, and across Wales, we need more than a mere rotating of the chairs. In local government as in national government, we need a genuine democratic movement whose aim is not only to take power but to reallocate that power back to ordinary people. We need a new constitution for the City; but beyond that, we need a movement with the ability and will to write and enforce that new constitution, a movement led by and subordinate to the majority of society.

Derek Hatton in Liverpool led such a movement in 1985, taking 18 other councils along with them, and winning hundreds of millions of pounds in services for their residents in the process before the central government sat on them with all their weight.

Attacks on public services are underway on an equally great scale as in Thatcher's time, and Cardiff Council and others doing everything they can to stifle public resistance to these attacks. To fight the cuts and make local government work for ordinary people, we need socialist councils and we need them now.


Anonymous said...

The comparison with Carmarthenshire is completely bogus though - unlike Carmarthenshire, Cardiff Council broadcasts all of its meetings live via webcast and then makes them all available online again soon after with an indexable agenda so you can go straight to the bit you want to view. Far from being "clunky" as you suggest, I've always found it works really well.

Any citizen of Cardiff can watch online (either from their home or a library) for free, or they can attend the meeting itself.

I don't see why anyone would NEED to film the meeting on a poor-quality mobile phone when all these facilities are available. Unless of course, they just wanted to cause a scene and work themselves up into a righteous state of indignation over something that frankly didn't matter. Good job that wasn't the case, eh?

Edmund said...

As you know, huge sections of the city aren't near libraries, the ones there are don't all have computers, one is only open one day a week...you can't just glibly say "well, I have a library, that's fine for me" and ignore everyone else.

Same problem with saying "any citizen can go themselves" -- you've got to pay for transport and take the time out of your day, and even Cardiff's councillors have complained about time conflicts as the meetings start while they're still in work hours.

Who is this, by the way? If you're going to make insinuations you should be willing to make them under your own name.

Alistair Sloan said...

Interestingly your post somewhat contradicts what Cardiff Council told me on 15 July 2011 where they stated that there are no policies, procedures or standing orders requiring members of the public to sign undertakings prior to being permitted entry to watch public council meetings.

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cockneyreject said...

Rather than running around not sure what issue your fighting why not stick to what you want you want?
Hackney Anarchist Group along with other local groups managed to get Hackney councils libraries cuts plans reversed by sticking to the issue.
Stop looking for issues where are there probably aren't any and you'll get a lot more done. Mind you that's Trot's all over eh?

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