Exclusion of the public from Council meetings
Guidance notes for Committee Members
Under the Local Government Access to Information Act 1985 meetings of a local authority have to be open to the public unless they are excluded under one of the following two provisions:
They must be excluded if the following information would otherwise be disclosed: (a) Information provided by the Government forbidding its disclosure or (b) information whose disclosure is forbidden by law or an order of court.
Also, a Local Authority may decide by passing a resolution (see Part III A 50 A (4) of the Act) to exclude the public when exempt information would be disclosed. Exempt information is defined in The Local Government (Access to Information) (Variation) Order 2006 (No 88) Schedule 12A .
This schedule lists as exempt: information about individuals, the financial or business affairs of an individual, labour negotiations and legal professional privilege. In addition information which would reveal that the authority proposes to issue a legal notice, order or direction against anyone is also exempt as is information relating to criminal investigations.
However, information is only exempt if and so long, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information. (Schedule 12A Part 2 10)
Where a report prepared for consideration at a meeting is likely to be treated as exempt it is not open to inspection by the public and every copy of the report has to be marked ”Not for publication’ and the nature of the exempt information stated on it.
Although not required under the Act, the committee should also be be informed of the reasons why officers feel that the public interest in maintaining an exemption, and therefore excluding the public, outweighs the public interest in not doing so. This is required under Article 13.02 (page 66) of the Borough’s constitution which says "All decisions of the Council are made in accordance with the following principles: (g) making clear what options were considered and rejected in the making of a decision and giving the reasons for that."
Questions to consider before excluding the public from a Council Meeting
Would information be disclosed which either (a) has been provided by Government expressly forbidding its disclosure or (b) whose disclosure is forbidden by law. If “yes” the public must be excluded from the relevant part of the meeting.
If “no”, consider whether exempt information might be disclosed by considering the following questions.
Has the committee been presented with a report for discussion marked “Not for Publication” and the nature of the exempt information stated on it?
Has the committee been informed by officers in writing why they feel that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in not doing so?
Does the committee agree with officers’ analysis as to where the public interest lies?
If the answer to all of the above is “yes”, while the Committee is still under no obligation to exclude the public, it may decide to do so by passing a resolution to that effect.
Prepared by Peter Silverman, www.hillingdon-watch.org.uk 26th May 2009