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Censored parish council meeting 'unlawful' says SoE


23 August 2017

SoE

A decision by a Cambridgeshire Parish Council to hold an emergency meeting under 'Chatham House Rules' has been branded 'unlawful' by the Society of Editors.

The meeting, organised by Stapleford Parish Council in Cambridge, saw the Cambridge News unable to name council members present at the meeting nor was the paper allowed to attribute comments made by the individuals present.  The emergency meeting, attended by 70 people, was organised following the removal of a traveller camp on the village’s recreation ground and subsequent mess left on the site.  The ‘Chatham House Rule’, which allows information disclosed at a meeting to be reported but prevents comments being attributed to named individuals, does not legally apply to Parish Council meetings.

The Society of Editors said: "The decision by Stapleford Parish Council to prevent the detailed reporting of a matter of legitimate public interest is as confusing as it is unlawful. Since 2014, government guidelines on public access to local authority meetings state that as well as attending meetings, journalists have a right to report, name and even broadcast such discussions.  

"The Society of Editors calls on the Parish Council to urgently familiarise itself with the guidelines and to ensure that, as a body made up of elected officials, it holds its members to the same level of accountability and public scrutiny that, ironically, the meeting sought to encourage in others."

In the wake of the meeting, the Cambridge News' editor David Bartlett wrote an open letter to readers explaining what had happened at the meeting.

He said: “We fully appreciate that members of the local community may not want their name on the Cambridge News website or in our print edition, and indeed at the meeting would have been under no obligation to identify themselves at the meeting – but parish councillors are elected officials.

“The public have a right to know what is being said and done in their name. Just because emotions are running high does not mean that councillors should be hidden behind the cloak of anonymity.

“I did consider withdrawing our reporter from the meeting, but felt that despite the draconian rules applied by the council, that the public interest was better served by us reporting a censored version of the meeting. Only around 70 people were present and many many more will want to know what was discussed.

“Parish councils are often dismissed (wrongly) as talking shops of little importance. It is a shame and a disgrace that when the local community is looking for leadership, its parish council has decided that it does not want to be subject to scrutiny and would rather discard our precious democratic principles.”


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