County councillors have voted down calls to extend the webcasting of council meetings.
At a full council meeting on Tuesday (December 4), members of East Sussex County Council voted against a motion from Liberal Democrat councillor John Ungar to begin broadcasting its People and Place scrutiny committees online.
While supported by the council’s Liberal Democrat group, the motion was recommended for refusal by the council’s governance committee due to concerns webcasting would ‘restrict an open and frank debate’.
However this argument came in from criticism from Cllr Ungar. He said: “There are a myriad reasons why people can’t get to the meetings. We do have the technology to webcast, so why don’t we do this?
“There are a lot of very positive points about webcasting but why would the council want to hide the good things. It is not because of money, because the report we have had shows [the costs] are negligible.
“Councillors have a simple decision to make here. They can vote for the motion to show that this council is an open and inclusive council with nothing to hide or they can vote against the motion, to show that this is a closed council, that does not want the public to see the council at work.
“It is a disgrace that we have before us a situation where the majority group wants to blind people, because they won’t webcast for those people who can’t come along and view what goes on.”
While Cllr Ungar’s arguments won the support of his fellow Liberal Democrats and the council’s two independent groups, it was opposed by both the Conservative and Labour groups.
Several Conservative councillors spoke out against the plans, including Rother North West councillor John Barnes MBE, who said: “It is not so much the principle of open government that worries me, but the practice.
“Whenever you bring a camera into a chamber, people’s behaviour actually changes. That doesn’t matter when you are actually trying to rehearse arguments for the public, for the third party.
“We quite properly bring the camera into the House of Commons chamber, in to this chamber and cabinet meetings, because what is taking place is a necessary piece of theatre to educate the public.
“The arguments have been rehearsed privately, they are then brought forward publicly, there is a certain amount of interchange, but everybody knows what the result will be.
“The nature of scrutiny is quite different. It is tentative, it is exploratory, it is a genuine interchange of views.
“I genuinely wish it could take place in the open – I think it would be much more educative for the public – but in all my experience that whenever that all-seeing eye is brought in, people begin to discuss with one eye on the camera.”
The motion was also criticised by Labour group leader Trevor Webb, who said: “One of the reasons I think scrutiny is so valuable is that, because we don’t have pre-meetings among party groups, people go into scrutiny with a lot of open minds.
“I’ve listened to this debate with great interest, because a lot of the people who have been expressing opinions on both sides are people I have actually worked with in scrutiny committee.
“The reason I will be voting against the motion is … that I have been at scrutiny committee meetings … where police and other experts are being really open.
“I can remember when Cllr [Angharad] Davies chaired a meeting on domestic violence, when a lot of people spoke very passionately and very openly on that issue.
“I don’t think a lot of us would have been as frank as we were had that particular scrutiny committee been webcast.”
Both these arguments however came in for criticism from Liberal Democrat councillor Sarah Osborne (Ouse Valley West and Downs).
She said: “I think many of the arguments against webcasting the scrutiny committees are completely inconsistent. You are saying you cannot perform your function on the committee if anybody is watching you, which is ridiculous.
“If a whole load of the public turn up are you suddenly going to immediately change your behaviour? Are you not going to be able to function as a scrutiny committee?”
Cllr Osborne also spoke about the ability of webcasting to improve the quality of councillor behaviour, citing her own experience of sexist behaviour when meetings are not webcast.
Ultimately, however, the motion failed to win the support of the majority of members. It was defeated with 14 votes in favour to 30 votes against.
Huw Oxburgh, Local Democracy Reporting Service