Kensington and Chelsea Council has been roundly condemned for its decision first to ban press from a cabinet meeting discussing the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, then to cancel it altogether after journalists won a court order granting them access.
The initial decision to hold yesterday evening’s meeting behind closed doors was made amid fears of “disorder” from members of the public, according to the council, following a protest two weeks earlier that had resulted in the public storming the town hall entrance.
The council said its decision was made within common law, adding by way of explanation: “There have been recent real threats and assaults on council staff and damage to one of the office buildings.”
In response, a coalition of six news outlets, led by the Guardian, applied to the High Court to get the ban overturned and won. But when journalists turned up, they were told the meeting had been cancelled.
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A statement issued today by the council explaining its decision to cancel the meeting read: “Members of the press sought and acquired an injunction which was served on the Council shortly before the Cabinet meeting started.
“Members of the press therefore joined the meeting after it had started.
“The Cabinet received legal advice that in order not to prejudice the public inquiry the meeting could not proceed as it would not be possible to restrict the discussions without straying into areas that would fall within the remit of the public Inquiry.
“The leader of the council therefore closed the meeting. We will explore opportunities for open discussions that do not prejudice the public inquiry.”
A Number 10 spokesperson said the Prime Minister’s view was that the council should have “respected” the High Court ruling.
They said: “Our view is that access to democracy should always be easy and we think that is vital if people want to retain confidence in our democratic system.
“I can’t speak for the council, but there are rules that state that all meetings must be open to the public except in certain circumstances. In this specific case, the High Court ruled that the meeting should be open, and we would have expected the council to respect that.”
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, told Press Gazette in a statement: “Access to the democratic process should always be open and transparent – I would urge all levels of government to always favour this approach so people can retain confidence in the system.”
A Guardian News and Media spokesperson said: “Following the Grenfell Tower disaster, it is very concerning that Kensington and Chelsea council attempted to bar both members of the public and journalists from its meeting.
“As soon as we were made aware of the issue, the Guardian led a consortium of media organisations, with our head of editorial legal, Gill Phillips, instructing a barrister to apply for a high court order preventing the council from excluding journalists.
“As a general rule it is accepted that council meetings are open to the public, and therefore the media. The public interest in openness and transparency around Grenfell is overwhelming – something that Downing Street has pointed out.
“Going forward, it is imperative that this ‘closed doors’ attitude is swiftly curtailed and the council behaves in an open and transparent way.”
The Society of Editors said the decision to halt the meeting despite the court order allowing press to attend had been “truly shocking”.
“Not only do journalists have a legal right, as recognised by the judge, to attend public meetings of local authorities, there is a huge public interest in the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the media has a vital role to play in keeping the public informed,” it said in a statement.
“The conduct of Kensington and Chelsea council in refusing to open themselves up to public scrutiny is an affront to democracy and shows utter contempt for the public’s right to know.
“It is essential that lessons are learnt from Grenfell Tower and, in order to achieve that, all individuals linked to the tragedy must be willing to engage in open and frank discussion and allow legitimate reporting of any dialogue.”
It said any further attempts to “prevent scrutiny by the media” would be met with similar legal challenges.
Under current legislation, all meetings of the council must be open to the public, as set out in the Local Government (Admissions to Information) Act 1985 and the Public Bodies (Admissions to Meetings) Act 1960.
According to Paul Francis, political editor of KM Group, councils are obliged to keep meetings open to the public if they are voting or discussing “key decisions”.
However, exceptions lie in the discussion of “confidential information” or the disclosure of “exempt information” – including details about council employees, tenants, service users, children in care or education, benefit claimants and an individual’s financial affairs – under the 1985 Act.
Francis said there is a “compromise available”, which is employed by a number of councils, whereby part of the meeting is held in public and part in private.
He said that in his 20 years covering local politics in Kent he had “never come across anything regarding harm to staff as grounds for holding a meeting in private or cancelling it”.
“There is some justification for the council not doing anything which might compromise legal proceedings, but that would depend on the whether the [Grenfell fire] inquiry itself was a legal proceeding or not,” he said.
“The inquiry will just be about establishing the facts and where responsibility lay, which in and of itself is not a legal proceeding – but an inquiry might lead to some criminal proceedings.
“There is that point to be made, but I’m a bit sceptical about that side of the council’s decision to try and bar the media and take the meeting behind closed doors.”
He argued it was for the council to “make arrangements around security” if it is concerned about disruption to the business of its meetings and that it wasn’t uncommon for security to attend a council meeting about a controversial issue that will face protest from residents.
“It’s kind of surprising to me that they didn’t anticipate that there was this level of interest in the first cabinet meeting after the tragedy,” he said.
“What are they going to do next time, keep cancelling meetings because lots of people are going to turn up? It isn’t sustainable or viable to do that long term. On a practical level it’s for them to get their security in order.”
Francis said it was “good that the courts came down on the side of the media and the public” in allowing press to attend the meeting, but said he was worried that if national media attention were to drop off in future then budget-starved local papers would struggle to mount a similar legal challenge.
Picture: PA Wire