There seems to be a culture of secrecy at Suffolk County Council. I was surprised that several councillors referred to difficulty in getting information at the the council meeting last week.
The following day James Hargrave, a campaigner for Stradbroke library, blogged that he had used the Freedom of Information Act to discover the make up of the project team for the libraries consultation. He could not get it simply by asking, although there was nothing surprising in the list.
You may recall that Suffolk is one of the councils which is defying the Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, by not publishing details of all spending above £500. Now published (see comment).
It seems a growing number of people with difficulties getting information from Suffolk CC is resorting to the FoI. In 2007 there were 387 requests. In 2008 the number rose to 596 and then fell slightly in 2009 to 582. And last year there were 684 until the end of October, an increase of 15% with two months still to go.
This information comes, of course, from an FoI disclosure. This one made through the What Do They Know? website.
At the council meeting, Jane Storey in presenting the budget, referred to the £3.5 million reduction in the Customers Services Direct budget which was included in the savings to be made. She said negotiations were continuing but she could not go into them because of “commercial confidentiality”.
It is looking very much as though Ipswich Spy was correct when the blog said, CSD savings in jeopardy before vote!.
In another FoI request Suffolk CC was asked for details of all directors of CSD, and for a list of people who attended board meetings “as representatives of the council who attended board meeting in either a voting or non-voting capacity”.
The response was that as CSD is not wholly owned by a public authority it did not fall under the FoI act. It pointed the enquirer to Companies House.
And then came this curious line which did not really answer the question: “Board meetings for CSD are attended by the Chief Executive and the Leader of the Council on behalf of Suffolk County Council.”
The fact is that Andrea Hill, the chief executive, and Jeremy Pembroke, the leader, are members of the board. Andrew Good, chief executive of Mid Suffolk District Council, and the leader there, Tim Passmore, are also directors. The other four directors are from BT which owns 80.1% of the company, Suffolk CC 16.4% and Mid Suffolk 3.5%. None of the directors are paid a fee by CSD.
The accounts to March 31 last year, available from Companies House for £1, show a company with no profit or loss and no employees (they are employed by the councils or BT).
In the 2009-10 financial year Suffolk CC paid CSD £50,960,952, and received expenses of £33,037,415. Mid Suffolk paid £3,138,231 and received £4,699,329.
The idea that negotiations with this company should be shielded by “commercial confidentiality”, is an affront to democracy. It runs, in large part, on seconded County Council employees providing services including IT, human resources, payroll, finance and benefits.
One of the unanswered fears is that the New Strategic direction will, if implemented, shield even more activities from public accountability.