Friday, 18 May 2012

Concerns remain over leafleting after Scrutiny discussion

Although Labour councillor members of the Call In, Overview and Scrutiny Committee, clearly saw their role last night as to support the Executive and the officers, rather than scrutinise, members of the public did try and hold the Council to account with the able assistance of Cllr Alison Hopkins. At either end of the experience spectrum neither Cllr Joyce Bacchus nor Cllr Krupa Sheth spoke.

Pete Firmin speaking for Brent Trades Union Council and Brent Fightback, and a member of the Labour Party, spoke about the lack of clarity in the leaflet licensing document. He said it left lots of grey areas in terms of  exemptions based on 'political purposes' and gave the example of the Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group leafleting claimants outside the Kilburn Job Centre about their rights Was that a political purpose? .  He argued that if the scheme was aimed at commercial interests that this would leave small businesses discriminated against. He said that they key question was, 'Who decides whether a leaflet meets the criterion set out in the report?'  He said that here was no evidence from the council that littering caused by leaflets was a problem - in his experience fast food packaging was much more of a problem. He concluded by stating that only 27% of local authorities had introduced such a scheme, the legislation was enabling rather than compulsory and so Brent Council did not have to implement it, and urged the council to abandon the proposals.

Speaking as a local resident, Secretary of Brent Green Party and a committee member of the Brent Campaign Against Climate Change, Pete Murry asked that the council to entirely reconsider the necessity for charges for leaflet distribution. He said he doubted that the intention of Brent Council was to restrict freedoms of speech, information and discussion in the borough when it would be under the international Olympic spotlight. However he feared that this could be the case

He said:
I have regularly leafleted in Brent on Party political issues during elections, but also at other times on other issues such as pollution from Waste incineration, the dangers of nuclear waste being transported through the borough and to promote events such as public meetings about Climate Change. Such issues are not always well covered in the media and often people can only be made aware of their possible local impact through leafleting. None of the organisations that I have campaigned for are financially wealthy or represent profit making commercial concerns. Leafleting is often the only way for minorities and minority causes to be brought to public attention. The current proposed charges would place even this method of communication beyond the financial means of some groups, especially groups of unemployed people whose limited income would make leafleting charges unpayable.
Murry also drew attention to the ambiguities  around definitions and concluded that there were surely better ways keeping the borough clean and tidy other than restricting citizens' freedoms.

Alison Hopkins asked about a non-party political campaign such as the Brent Coalition for a Sustainable Brent Cross Development leafleting over incinerators and whether that would be exempted. She pointed out that the lack of clarity meant that officers or the council would be making decisions about exemptions and that this may be okay for now in terms of free speech, but officers and councils change and we have to think of the future. Unwritten laws were dangerous so there needed to be detail and clarity based on real cases.

In an intervention that lacked the usual sarcasm and side swipes, Helga Gladbaum said she was relieved that the original focus on the Olympics had changed. She said the council needed to sharpen up enforcement of the rules and asked what was meant by the phrase 'harm to the community's interests'. (This latter phrase was used to illustrate when officers thought they would intervene in the leafleting process'.

Cllr Powney, who seems to be in charge of everything contentious, said that rules on leafleting had been in force since 1994 and that the new proposals represented a liberalisation. For example, the previous rules had exempted 'political parties' not 'political purposes'. He suggested that the wording in the supplementary report was 'not particularly illuminating' unless you are a lawyer. He said the proposals were not lime limited but the Olympics may result in a slightly great amount of leafleting. He said it would be difficult to define all possible cases in advance and it was better to focus on the principles behind enforcement. He said that enforcement has not been a problem in the past.

There followed some detailed officer contributions with assurances from Michael Read that in 18 years Brent Council had never used their powers to stop leafleting for political purposes. He said that there had been no prosecutions since 2006 using the existing powers but there were about 20 seizures of leaflets a year. He said that the council's enforcement record should reassure the public. Leafleting was only an issue if it did real harm, people carrying it out were creating a nuisance (thrusting leaflets at the public on narrow pavements), big corporations carrying out mass leafleting, or leaflets being left unattended or being thrown away on the street.  David Thrales gave examples of nuisance caused by leaflets about new shops opening, mobile cards, buying of gold and pawnbrokers  and these along with examples from Yogini Patel about leafleting by a big betting ship all seemed to focus on Wembley High Road, rather than the other streets designated in the report. She thought that leafleting encouraging gambling did harm. Patel said it was leafleting every day of the week by small businesses that caused the real nuisance and also gave the example of the Cup Final when Liverpool fans distributed 'Don't Buy the Sun' leaflets that were left all over Wembley High Road.

Officers favoured on the spot fines rather than the expense of going to court and also drew attention to problems about seizures where legally the council had to find the original owners and return them. They said that giving a warning or moving people on usually worked and it emerged that Brent Council has only four officers to enforce the rules.

As the discussion progress it seemed to me that the emphasis had changed from discussion about definitions of exempted activities and the dangers inherent in that to the concept of 'harm to the community' or 'nuisance'  which I saw as equally dangerous. David Thrales at one point said that hs own interpretation was that leaflets that broadly wanted to ;'progress the community' were ones that would be approved. That seems to me to be a minefield. Could a pro-academy conversion headteacher complain to enforcement officers that anti-academy campaigners leafleting parents outside her school were 'creating a nuisance' or 'doing harm to the community'?

Winding up Cllr Paul Lorber said that the discussion had justified the Call In showing how confusing the whole issue was. If councillors were confused, what about the public? He asked why,  if the key issue was littering,  was the licensing scheme and fees necessary?  Could the council implement enforcement over nuisance without fees etc? If the target was commercial leafleting then shouldn't that be stated? He said that small business should not be discriminated against by exorbitant fees. Alison Hopkins suggested a sliding scale and Cllr Powney said he would seek advice on whether that would be legal and put it into the consultation if it was.

The Lib Dem Call-in motion was then voted down.

The Consultation will take place from the 22nd May, advertised in the press on 24th May and the results made public on the 14th June. Officers would make the decisions based on the consultation and the new powers would come into effect on July 2nd in time for the Olympics.

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