A GOVERNMENT minister has accused Bexley Council of wasting police time after officers were called over an attempt to film a meeting.

Brandon Lewis is Eric Pickles’ deputy at the Department for Communities and Local Government which recently released guidance calling on councils to allow all public meetings to be filmed or recorded.

Bexley Council bans the practice without the prior consent of whoever chairs the meeting - a policy which was tested on June 19 when a member of the public tried to audio record a council committee session.

Nicholas Dowling and a number of other attendees were asked to leave and the police were called to the Civic Centre while the public realm, community safety, economic development and regeneration overview and scrutiny committee meeting took place in another room.

Mr Lewis has questioned why police were called to deal with the incident to which officers took 45 minutes to respond after which Mr Dowling and others dispersed amicably.

The MP for Great Yarmouth told News Shopper: "To call the police to a public council meeting is an interesting use of their time at best.

"I think it is a real shame and Bexley Council should be embracing transparency.

"It seems the complete antithesis of what they are there for to be against this kind of public involvement.

"I don’t see why any publicly elected councillor should have a problem with being filmed - MPs are filmed in parliament whenever we speak."

Nicholas Dowling with the offending recorder outside the Civic Centre.

Mr Lewis was leader of Brentwood Borough Council in Essex from 2004 to 2009.

The Conservative minister said: "When I was a council leader myself we had filming at all meetings.

"They are public meetings and there is no reason why they should not be open.

"Councillors are democratically elected, they are public figures, they are making public decisions and having public meeting and as much of that as possible should be in the public domain."

Council response 

A Bexley Council spokesman said: "We are very disappointed that the minister spoke publicly about last week’s meeting without asking for our view.

"The leader of the council has now spoken to the minister and given him a more balanced account.

"We are committed to openness. Our council and committee meetings are held in public. The papers for these meetings are made available in advance and opportunities offered to ask questions, make deputations and present petitions.

"As the minister will be aware, Parliament is filmed in accordance with strict rules laid down by Parliament itself and using purpose-built technology – not by people waving handheld recorders and giving a running commentary.

Eric Pickles has called for councils to allow meetings to be filmed. 

"Filming cannot be carried out in the way we would want in our existing offices, but we are investigating making suitable arrangements when we move to the former Woolwich building in Bexleyheath next year, provided the cost is reasonable.

"We already allow filming at our meetings, but the rules we have agreed make this at the discretion of the chairman.

"The problem that arose last week was caused by one of a small group of people who was intent on causing disruption and who refused to comply with our rules to gain attention.

"We do not employ security staff, so we asked the police to help restore order so that the committee’s business could be completed.

"Like councils up and down the country, we are dealing with extra responsibilities and challenges at a time when demand for some of our services is increasing and our government funding is reducing.

"We welcome serious public discussion of these issues. Deliberate and planned attempts to disrupt our business do nothing to help our residents and businesses and simply take up time and money that could be better spent."