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Government boost for bid to give journalists access to council accounts

Wendy MortonA bid to widen journalists’ rights to access council spending documents has received a government boost.

A private member’s bill sponsored by Wendy Morton, left, Conservative MP for Aldridge-Brownhills, extends to journalists and bloggers the right, for one month a year, to inspect and have copies of a wide range of accounts-related documentation, for a local authority.

Newspapers have long had the right to inspect council accounts for a set period of time each year but under existing rules, that right is restricted to local electors, so a journalist would have to be a ratepayer of a local authority to obtain its accounts-related documents.

The proposed legislation, the Local Audit (Public Access To Documents) Bill, would extend the right to any journalist and also covers fire authorities, police and crime commissioners, parish councils and NHS clinical commissioning groups.

It has now won the backing of Local Government Minister Andrew Percy, who commended it as “excellent.”

Mr Percy told a committee of MPs scrutinising the bill that these rights “were not particularly burdensome to the authorities” and could “increase town hall transparency and ensure that councillors are accountable for their spending decisions”.

He also cited support for the bill from media industry body the News Media Association.

In a previous consultation, the NMA said: “The ability to report on local government finances and accounts is essential if newspapers are to hold those authorities to account and inform the public about how taxpayers’ money is being spent.

“Confining journalists’ ability to do this to their local area is an unnecessary constraint on their ability to report on local government and correcting this is long overdue.”

Once the committee stage is complete, the Bill will be debated and voted on by MPs and then move on to the House of Lords.