Belfast Telegraph

Belfast council working groups to be recorded to increase transparency

By Andrew Madden, Local Democracy Reporter

Audio recordings of working groups at Belfast City Council will now be made available to the public, in a bid to increase transparency in City Hall funding decisions.

Since 2014, working groups have allocated more than £4.5m to projects across the city.

Working groups were formed at City Hall years ago to allow for early discussions on matters before reports would be submitted for consideration by BCC committees and, ultimately, the full council.

“The Working Groups were a less formal way in which discussions could commence on matters which would, ultimately, come before a Standing Committee for formal approval,” according to council documents.

However, this led to a situation where, as they were not governed by rules set out in legislation, working groups became “entirely discretionary” or, as one councillor put it, they had “unintentionally become a money allocating body outside of the scrutiny of the public”.

“As such, officers could include details in working group reports which would, if the same reports were to be made presented to a Standing Committee, require to be restricted from public view due to the confidential nature of the information provided,” council documents state.

All full council meetings have been streamed live since 2015 and committee meetings have been recorded since January 2016.

In January, Alliance councillor Peter McReynolds tabled a motion calling for all future working groups to also be audio recorded and uploaded to the council website.

“[The council] agrees to commence recording of all Area Working Group meetings to demonstrate to the public that resources are being allocated openly, fairly and transparently,” the motion read.

On a vote by show of hands, ten members voted for the proposal and one against and this week, the first audio recordings of workings groups at City Hall were made available to the public.

Councillor McReynolds has said the audio recording of Belfast City Council working groups is a “major win” for ratepayers.

“Since 2014, the area working groups have allocated more than £4.6 million to various projects and programmes across Belfast,” he said.

“However, no decision made in the previously unrecorded groups was ever significantly debated or rejected by the audio recorded Strategic Policy and Resources Committee.

“This meant the area working group mechanisms had unintentionally become a money allocating body outside of the scrutiny of the public.

“Therefore it is only right the public are able to go on the website and listen to how decisions are made and how funding allocations are granted.

“Alliance has always demanded the highest standard of accountability, integrity and transparency from politics, and this decision is a major win for the ratepayers of Belfast.”

According to council documents, editorial control over the recordings will be exercised only “to the extent that is necessary to avoid the publication of defamatory content or other material which it would be unlawful to publish”

This job will fall to the City Solicitor.

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