MLAs have voted to make the 11 new ‘super councils’ record their meetings and make the audio available to the public.
The Alliance proposal, debated as the Assembly discussed the Local Government Bill during a lengthy sitting yesterday, should help eliminate disputes about what was said at a meeting and allow members of the public to hear how their representatives act on their behalf, Alliance’s Anna Lo argued.
But the DUP opposed the proposal strongly, arguing that it could stifle debate and prove costly, while the UUP also raised concerns but in the end voted to support the amendments.
Despite the Assembly sitting until almost 10pm last night, the amendment – one of a few to be discussed yesterday – was only voted on this morning and there were suggestions that today’s sitting may not provide sufficient time to debate all 115 amendments to the lengthy council reform bill.
Ms Lo said: “It is of concern that too many of our councils operate in a way that is not open and transparent to local residents. Too often, councils seem to be convinced that it is better to keep decisions quiet and avoid too much fuss.
“A prime example of that is the existing Castlereagh council, which has asked journalists to leave and which regularly frustrates residents who are trying to observe council proceedings.”
But DUP MLA Pam Cameron denounced the proposal as being “truly in the realms of Big Brother-style scrutiny” and “unreasonably costly”.
TUV leader Jim Allister said he believed recording could be done for a very small sum but that if it was more expensive, “perhaps it could be paid for by having one fewer council junket a year” but suggested it should be extended to record meetings of the new council ‘cabinets’.
UUP MLA Tom Elliott said he was “quite supportive of making recordings available” but was concerned at the possible costs.
The debate, which late last night extended to the form of power-sharing which the new councils will have to adopt, will resume this morning.
Opposing the proposal to make councils record their meetings, DUP peer Lord Morrow, pictured, said that “the inference [of the amendment] could well be that other councils are not open and transparent. Therefore, I think that it puts a shadow of suspicion where there never ever should be one.”
He added: “I do not think that the proposed amendment would add to it; I think that it would hinder and obstruct the effective working of a council.”
But NI21’s John McCallister said: “I have no real understanding of why Lord Morrow is concerned. We practice it in this building... Why would we not want and welcome that openness and transparency in moving away from the idea of councillors in smoke-filled rooms doing some sort of deal?”
Ms Lo said that one English council had bought audio recording equipment for just £160.
In the end, the DUP was the only party to vote against the amendment on audio recording and it was carried by 63 votes to 34.