The leader of Kensington Council dramatically halted a council meeting on the Grenfell Tower tragedy last night after a judge overturned a ban on journalists attending.
As reported by HTFP yesterday, the council initially barred the press and public from the cabinet meeting – the first to be held since the fire which has claimed at least 80 lives.
Media organisations including local website GetWestLondon then launched a legal challenge to the ban and the High Court ruled that the press should be allowed in.
But as journalists were entering the room, council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown announced he was scrapping the meeting on the grounds that the presence of journalists would prejudice the forthcoming public inquiry into the disaster.
He said: “We can’t have an unprejudiced discussion in this room with the public inquiry that is about to take place, if journalists are recording and writing our comments.
“I’m told the press are here as a result of legal intervention, that therefore means we cannot have a discussion as we were intending to have as that would prejudice the public inquiry. That is the advice I have received and therefore I have to declare the meeting closed.”
The council said in a statement afterwards: “The Royal Borough’s Cabinet met today. It started with a minute’s silence in memory of the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The Leader then read out a statement which has now been published.
“The Cabinet meeting was arranged as a Private Meeting because of the potential public disorder and the assaults on staff after the protests at the Town Hall in the previous weeks. However, members of the press sought and acquired an injunction which was served on the Council shortly before the Cabinet meeting started.
“Members of the press therefore joined the meeting after it had started. The Cabinet received legal advice that in order not to prejudice the public inquiry the meeting could not proceed as it would not be possible to restrict the discussions without straying into areas that would fall within the remit of the public Inquiry.
“The Leader of the Council therefore closed the meeting. We will explore opportunities for open discussions that do not prejudice the public inquiry.”
Earlier the council had put the decision to hold the meeting in private down to the “risk of disruption,” citing an incident two days after the fatal fire, in which survivors and other residents attempted to enter Kensington Town Hall.
A notice of meeting on the council’s website read: “Please note this meeting will be held entirely in private session, pursuant to Standing Order 31.01*, in the light of the risk of disruption (as witnessed on Friday 16 June) and consequently security and public safety concerns.
“As such it will be open only to cabinet members, support officers and invited guests (if any). The public minutes of this meeting will be published, in due course, on the council website.”
The Standing Order referred to states that under common law and statute, the chairman of the meeting, who in this case is council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown, has the power to exclude the public if he or she is of the opinion that there shall be a disruption to the business.
The fire was listed as the only item of business other than apologies for absence and declarations of interest.
In a piece on the council’s initial decision to bar the press, GetWestLondon content editor Charlotte Neal wrote: “We understand that the lack of distinction between public and press in the order and zero evidence that one of our reporters would disrupt proceedings, coupled with the undeniable public interest of the meeting, gives the council not even a matchstick sized legal leg to stand on. If the ban remains, the press could likely demand a (costly) judicial review.
“Head of governance services at the council, Robert Sheppard, responsible for giving advice to the cabinet, told Get West London ‘council lawyers are satisfied on the legal basis’ and that the press is welcome to challenge it. When asked if we could speak to the council’s lawyers, he redirected us to the press office.
“If the council’s not going to let the public into the meeting, once again insulting their capability to handle themselves, at least let “the eyes and ears of the public” do what it does best and report on the damn thing. We repeat, these people deserve at worst the whole truth.
“We stress, the press are the eyes and ears of the public; we’re not here to play lip service to the council and publish its carefully crafted ‘available shared content’ – where’s the accountability in that?”
Seamus Dooley, NUJ acting general secretary, said: “We are deeply disturbed at the news that the Kensington and Chelsea council cabinet meeting tonight will be held in private. The ban on media attendance should be lifted immediately and we call on all council members to ensure that this matter of the utmost public interest is discussed in public.
“The horrific fire is a matter of grave public interest. The public has a right to know if public policy failures contributed to this disaster. There is no justification for behind closed doors discussions. This can only contribute to further alienation of residents who feel their voice has not been listened to.
“Members of the public, especially those affected by the fire, and broader public must have their rights respected. The right to freedom of expression includes the right to information. Ultimately elected representatives make decisions on behalf of their constituents and the local community.
“Decisions of the council should be open to scrutiny and conveyed to the public via the independent media. Secrecy is the default position of those who seek to avoid accountability for their actions and on this occasion there is no room for anything less than complete transparency.”