COUNCILLORS who were democractically elected in Witney could be banned from speaking to the press without getting written permission first under the town council’s new media policy.
Witney Town Council, criticised over banning the press from parts of many of its meetings, has drafted a new media and publicity policy that says: “Councillors and staff, other than the clerk or communications officer, cannot in their official capacity provide verbal or written statements to the media, or write articles for publication, using the media, about the council’s business decisions and actions without the council’s prior written consent.
“Councillors and staff cannot communicate their personal views about the council’s business decisions and actions, other than the view they hold in their official capacity.”
The clause drew a warning from Prime Minister and Witney MP David Cameron. He said: “Witney Town Council, as is the case with all public bodies, needs to ensure that its business is conducted in an open and transparent way as possible.”
The policy came as councillor Ben Woodruff said he was “embarrassed” by the council’s relationship with the media, while another, Duncan Enright, said stopping democratically elected representatives from speaking without permission was “outrageous”.
Mr Enright, who opposed the public’s exclusion from a meeting last month discussing the sale of Langdale Hall and repairs to the Corn Exchange, said: “The councillors are there to represent. It’s outrageous.”
Town clerk Sharon Groth said: “From time to time the council reviews its policies and governance arrangements to ensure they remain up to date and relevant.
“The town council will be reviewing its existing media policy at a future meeting.
“So far the town clerk has provided members with the National Association of Local Council’s model policy for consideration and amendment. At this stage the town clerk would stress that this model has not been discussed by council so remains in draft form.”
However, NALC spokeswoman Kate Groves said the adopted draft was from an example media policy in its book Local Councils Explained – not a template.
She said: “The draft is therefore the council’s own work.”
Witney Mayor Peter Dorward said: “They are there to protect the council officers as much as anything else so someone who is a loose cannon can’t effect the whole of the council.”
Banbury and Abingdon town councils said they did not have such restrictions on councillors.
Your representatives' responses
Jeanette Baker: “I haven’t read it yet, but as far as I know it’s only a paper that’s been sent round for councillors to look at compared to the National Association of Local Councils guidelines. There’s been no suggestion at this stage that we’re going to accept and adopt it.”
Brenda Churchill, pictured: “I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but as far as I understand it’s similar to the district or county council. At the moment it’s only a draft so if there’s something in there that we don’t like we can alter it.”
Nick Buckle: “I would have to read it in more detail before I make further comment. But I do believe the council is a public service at the end of the day and information should be made public eventually. If I objected to a council decision I have it minuted.”
Duncan Enright: “It’s too restrictive and untrusting. It just seems fundamentally wrong to me that the clerk could have such huge control so I’m going to challenge that.”
Ben Woodruff: “I would be surprised if it was left as it is. We’re all old enough to make our own decisions.”
Alam Beames: “I don’t agree with tying our hands together and I won’t be agreeing that. I don’t see why we should have to go through the town clerk to discuss items and I believe we need to be able to speak to the media.”
Roger Curry: “I haven’t had the chance to look through it properly yet, but I will express my views on it at the meeting. The town clerk’s job is to produce papers to discuss, but it’s up to us councillors to decide policy.”
Chris Holliday: “It would be unfair for me to comment without reading through the policy properly. I’ve only been a councillor for a year so I’m not even sure what the old policy was and I would have to look through that as well.”
Toby Morris: “I haven’t looked through it yet, but I guess I would always go along with the will of the council, whether I agree with it or not. Obviously, if I was against it I would challenge it in the debate.”
Steve Way: Refused to comment.
David Harvey: and Chrissie Curry said they had not had a chance to look at it because of family issues.
Harry Eaglestone: had not received a copy as he is currently taking leave due to personal matters.
Peter Dorward: no answer
Jim King: no answer
David Snow: no answer
Chris Woodward: no answer