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June 29, 2017updated 30 Jun 2017 10:42am

Press and public barred from council meeting about Grenfell Tower fire disaster amid ‘disorder’ fears

By Freddy Mayhew

Update 7pm: After a challenge at the High Court by a coalition of six media groups a judge ordered Kensington Council to admit journalists with press cards to the meeting. After journalists arrived the council called off the meeting claiming reports could prejudice the forthcoming public inquiry.

Journalists have been barred from attending the first Kensington and Chelsea Council cabinet meeting since the Grenfell Tower fire disaster that left at least 80 people dead or missing presumed dead.

The fire is the only item on the agenda for the council meeting, due to be held at 6.30pm tonight at Kensington Town Hall, which will be attended by members of the borough’s cabinet.

The council has chosen to hold the meeting in private over fears of disruption to proceedings after protestors stormed the entrance to the town hall on 16 June in protest at the fire (pictured top).

In a statement at the top of the meeting’s agenda, the council said: “Please note this meeting will be held entirely in private session, pursuant to Standing Order 31.01, in the light of the risk of disruption (as witnessed on Friday 16 June) and consequent security and public safety concerns.

“As such it will be open only to council members, support officers and invited guests (if any). The public minutes of this meeting will be published, in due course, on the council website.”

It added: “Under common law and statute, the chairman of a meeting has the power to exclude the public if he or she is of the opinion that there shall be a disruption to the business.

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“It is also lawful to exclude the public before a meeting if there are grounds upon which to anticipate a disruption of the proceedings.”

Dan Peters, news editor at The MJ, a specialist weekly magazine for local authority professionals, said he had planned on attending the meeting but was told that journalists, like the public, will not be allowed in.

He told Press Gazette: “I saw this was a private meeting and I saw their reason, which obviously I can understand partly. There was an incursion two weeks ago and people stormed the council offices, but that shouldn’t really apply to journalists because we aren’t going to cause a riot.”

In a statement, a Kensington and Chelsea Council spokesperson said: “As you are aware there have been recent real threats and assaults on council staff and damage to one of the office buildings.

“Such risks remain and we have had to take the decision to hold the meeting in private as to do otherwise would likely result in disorder.  The decision to exclude the public in advance is in accordance with the Council’s Standing Orders which are confirmed in common law.

“A statement will be published by the Leader this evening and the minutes of the meeting will be published as soon as possible following the meeting.”

They added that a full council meeting in July “will be open to all”.

Press have been offered a “shared interview” with council leader Cllr Nick Paget-Brown.

Séamus Dooley, NUJ acting general secretary, said: “We are deeply disturbed at the news that the Kensington and Chelsea council cabinet meeting tonight will be held in private.

“The ban on media attendance should be lifted immediately and we call on all council members to ensure that this matter of the utmost public interest is discussed in public.

“The horrific fire is a matter of grave public interest. The public has a right to know if public policy failures contributed to this disaster. There is no justification for behind closed doors discussions.

“This can only contribute to further alienation of residents who feel their voice has not been listened to.”

He added: “Decisions of the council should be open to scrutiny and conveyed to the public via the independent media.

“Secrecy is the default position of those who seek to avoid accountability for their actions and on this occasion there is no room for anything less than complete transparency.”

Picture: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

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