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09 February 2017

Government Backs Widening Journalists’ Rights To Council Spending Documents

A private members' bill giving all journalists the right to inspect the actual documents relating to  local council accounts is likely to become law, after the Government backed the News Media Association in dismissing objections that the measure would be too much of a burden on councils.

The Local Audit (Public Access To Documents) Bill, sponsored by Wendy Morton, Conservative MP for Aldridge-Brownhills, extends to journalists and bloggers the right, for one month a year, to inspect and have copies of a wide range of accounts-related documentation, for a local authority.  This includes ‘all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers, receipts and other documents relating to ‘ the accounting records for the previous financial year during the relevant audit period..

Under existing rules, that right is restricted to local electors, so a journalist would have to be a ratepayer of a local authority to obtain its accounts-related documents. Historically, the reason for this exclusion was the fear that the cost of granting a wider access regime would be excessive. The Private Members Bill will give the right to journalists to access, inspect and copy these documents regardless of whether or not they live in the authority area.

In a consultation on the Bill late last year, the NMA argued strongly in favour of the Bill: "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." The NMA drew attention local press longstanding use of access to local government rights to uncover issues of public importance.

The NMA added "we are not aware that the current regime permitting interested persons, whether journalists who fell within that description or other persons, to inspect this information has resulted is any undue cost burden either to local authorities or to auditors, so there is no reason to expect that its extension to any journalist would."

Local Government Minister Andrew Percy echoed these points when he told a committee of MPs scrutinising the bill that these rights "were not particularly burdensome to the authorities" and commended the "excellent" bill that could "increase townhall transparency and ensure that councillors are accountable for their spending decisions." He cited NMA support for the Bill.

The bill will be debated and voted on by MPs and then move on to the House of Lords. Government support for the Bill makes it highly likely that it will get on to the statute book.