Cautious welcome for proposed law to give media greater access to council records

A private members bill that could give journalists the power to trawl councils' financial records is an administrative burden but the correct reputational move, local authority comms experts have told PRWeek.

Council comms experts have given a cautious welcome to proposals to increase media access to records (pic credit: LanceB/Thinkstock)
Council comms experts have given a cautious welcome to proposals to increase media access to records (pic credit: LanceB/Thinkstock)

At present, residents of a local authority area are entitled to view their council’s financial records, detailing how money is spent, for one month each year.

But under the Local Audit (Public Access To Documents) Bill, this right would be extended to journalists and bloggers, who are currently excluded unless they can prove they are local residents.

The private members bill, proposed by Conservative MP Wendy Morton, is likely to become law after it won the support of the Government, according to the News Media Association (NMA).

The reason given for journalists not being able to access financial records in the past has been that the cost of wider access would have been excessive, but this was dismissed by Local Government minister Andrew Percy in a recent committee scrutinising the bill.

Simon Jones, chair of LG comms, told PRWeek he agreed that the bill would place a burden on local authorities, but that the alternative was worse.

He said: "Giving journalists the same access to financial information as residents is a common-sense move but will place an additional burden on overstretched resources, which has to be recognised. Yet the bigger reputational risk for public bodies is not being open about what taxpayers' money is spent on and why it is spent."

The proposed law also won the support of Transparency International’s UK operation, which described transparency across local authorities as "inconsistent".

Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, said: "Our research has highlighted inconsistent levels of transparency across local government, and some instances where large transactions are very difficult to trace due to inaccessible and incomplete data. Transparency over public spending is a vital component to root out both corruption and waste, so proposals to open public accounts must surely be a good thing."

In a consultation on the bill late last year, the NMA said: "The ability to report on local government finances and accounts is essential if newspapers are to hold those authorities to account and inform the public about how taxpayers' money is being spent. Confining journalists' ability to do this to their local area is an unnecessary constraint on their ability to report on local government and correcting this is long overdue."

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