Downing Street has condemned Kensington and Chelsea council for closing down its first cabinet meeting since the Grenfell Tower fire after failing to have the media barred from it.
A No 10 spokeswoman said the prime minister “would have expected the council to respect” a high court ruling that said journalists should be allowed to attend the meeting.
The comments, following similar concerns raised by the communities secretary, Sajid Javid, increases pressure on the Conservative-run council, which has faced significant criticism over its handling of the fire and its aftermath.
While Downing Street also said the council had made some progress over its response to the fire, it is understood to be angry at the chaotic scenes at the cabinet meeting on Thursday evening.
The council initially said the public and media would be barred to avoid potential disorder. However, after a last-minute legal challenge from media organisations including the Guardian the high court said accredited journalists could attend.
But when the meeting began the council leader, Nick Paget-Brown, made a brief statement and then closed the session, saying it could not continue with journalists present. This prompted loud objections from opposition councillors.
The Downing Street spokeswoman said: “Our view is that access to democracy should always be easy, and we think that’s vital if people want to retain confidence in our democratic system.
“I can’t obviously speak for the council, but there are rules that state all meetings must be open to the public except in certain circumstances.
“As we saw in this specific case, the high court ruled that the meeting should be open, and we would have expected the council to respect that.”
She declined to say whether Theresa May still had confidence in the council leadership, reiterating only that No 10 “would have expected them to respect the court ruling about the meeting being open”.
At the meeting, Paget-Brown made a statement about the council’s response to the fire, in which at least 80 people died, including a partial apology.
He then adjourned the meeting, saying journalists’ presence could prejudice the public inquiry. It is not clear how this could prejudice the inquiry, as it will be led by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a retired appeal court judge, rather than a jury.
On Friday, Javid said: “Access to the democratic process should always be open and transparent – I would urge all levels of government to always favour this approach so people can retain confidence in the system.”
Under rules set by Javid’s department, all executive meetings should be public unless there is a risk of disorder, or if the council might otherwise breach a legal obligation about confidential information.
Robert Atkinson, leader of the council’s Labour group, was furious when the meeting ended early. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the brief session descended into “utter chaos”.
He said: “I am ashamed of the way in which the council proceeded. They’ve been hiding from residents, they’ve been hiding from backbench councillors for over a week … The leader of the council read the statement and then was not prepared to have a debate with his own council members.”
He added that legal officers at the meeting could have marshalled any dialogue away from prejudicial topics. Paget-Brown’s suggestion that councillors might prejudice the inquiry was “insulting”, Atkinson added.
Atkinson called for the resignation of the deputy leader, Rock Feilding-Mellen, after documents leaked to the Times showed fire-resistant zinc cladding originally planned for Grenfell Tower was downgraded to the more combustible aluminium variety to save £293,000. An email about the decision said: “We need good costs for Cllr Feilding-Mellen and the planner tomorrow at 8.45am!”
Atkinson said: “These decisions do come back to the responsibility of senior councillors and the cabinet … Clearly what is appearing now is that people were taking decisions without realising the consequences of the decisions they were taking.”
Following the high court order at about 6pm, the doors to the meeting were finally opened after it got under way, although those bereaved by the disaster and local residents were not allowed in.
In his statement, Paget-Brown said many of the criticisms of the council would be “challenged” in the future.
He said: “We are under sustained media criticism for a slow reaction to the fire, non-visibility and for failing to invest in North Kensington. I believe that many of these criticisms need to be challenged and over time they will be, but I can think of nothing more demeaning to the memory of those lost and missing in the fire than seeking the resolution of political scores.”
He acknowledged the condemnation of the council’s response to the fire and said he would “apologise for what we could have done better”. He added that the council’s “reputation with the wider community in North Kensington is damaged and in some cases fractured”.
Paget-Brown told the meeting: “The council will need to think about how we continue to recognise the immensity of this tragedy. It cannot be business as usual.” He said he would announce a team to oversee the “specific challenges posed by the fire and to ensure that we have a coordinated and visible response that is respected by the survivors”.
In an angry confrontation, a Labour councillor who represents the Grenfell Tower ward accused Paget-Brown of using the meeting as an “opportunity … to make a statement”.
Beinazir Lasharie, who also represents the Notting Dale ward and who lived near the tower, was in tears at the closing of Paget-Brown’s statement. She said residents had been “fobbed off”.
One local resident, Maryon Samuels, tried to attend the meeting but was barred from entering. “This is a continuation of what they have done from the beginning of this avoidable disaster: they have just abrogated their responsibility completely and hidden away and not come out and talked to the community,” she said.
In a separate development late on Thursday, a man was charged with five counts of fraud over allegations that he attempted to gain money by falsely claiming to have lost family members in the fire.