The Vicar of Dibley under Chatham House Rules
Thanks to @MikeGalloway
A PARISH council wants to hold all its meetings under a legally unenforceable rule which would provide anonymity for speakers.
Hazlemere Parish Council’s full council meeting on Tuesday – which did not go ahead as not enough councillors showed up – was scheduled to be held under the Chatham House Rule.
But the rule is a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ usually used in business circles and is not legally enforceable at public meetings – leading to one councillor suggesting the council is attempting to suppress free speech.The idea is championed by chairman Cllr David Brown, who said it was brought in because members were unhappy with posts made about them and the council on Hazlemere Residents Association 2009’s website.
He said: “Councillors have approached me to say they are not happy with what’s being written on the [HRA] blogs. We are being named and accused of things that didn’t happen or our words are being twisted.
“I remembered the Chatham House Rule from my college days. There’s no difference how the meeting is reported, but instead of ‘so-and-so said…’ it would be ‘it was said…’ so there’s no comeback to try and stop the blog site.
“It’s something I would like to continue and the feedback I’m receiving is the councillors want to do this as I’m told they are taking a hammering [on the HRA site].”
The Free Press informed Cllr Brown that the Chatham House Rule could not be legally imposed and the BFP could continue reporting speakers’ names, even if councillors proceeded with the principle.
Cllr Brown responded: “It’s all done on trust and if you did that, no-one would trust you and you wouldn’t get people talking to you.”
The rule originated in 1927 at Chatham House, home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, to provide anonymity to speakers and encourage free speech.
It states: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”
Wycombe District Council’s spokesman Sue Robinson confirmed the rule does not apply to parish council meetings.
Cllr Brian Mapletoft – a former chairman of the HRA and one of just three councillors who attended Tuesday night’s meeting before it was called off – has demanded the chairman withdraw the use of the rule.
He said: “I’d like to apologise unreservedly to the community for the behaviour of my fellow councillors on Tuesday.
“However, the chairman has to have the humility to retract his absurd application of the Chatham House Rule to public council meetings.”
He accused councillors backing the Chatham House Rule of “hiding behind anonymity”, before adding: “However you dress it up, it’s an attempt to curtail freedom of speech and reporting.”
Tony Howard, committee member of the HRA, said the council had not been in contact with them about the contents of its blogs.
BFP editor Steve Cohen confirmed the paper would continue with its policy of naming councillors, wherever possible, who speak or make decisions at public meetings.
Simon Westrop, lawyer for the Newsquest Media Group, the BFP’s parent company, said: “The ‘Chatham House Rule’ is not a law. It is certainly not enforceable against the public or the press.
“It is just a convention sometimes used in private debating societies and clubs to encourage uninhibited discussion by giving anonymity to the participants, so their views may be acknowledged but not attributed.
“By contrast, of course, the real law actually requires parish council meetings to be open to the public.
“It is extraordinary and alarming that a parish council thinks it could ever be appropriate in a democratic society to try to use a debating society convention of this kind in order to avoid individual accountability to the electorate.
“It is essential that voters know what the people they have elected to public office are doing and saying on their behalf. The press are the eyes and ears of the public in this regard.
“But there can be no effective scrutiny of parish councils if efforts are made to suppress reporting of the identities of participants in meetings.”