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Council staff holding meetings in person to avoid written trail which could be made public - officer tells Freedom of Information commission

Suffolk County Council headquarters; Endeavour House, Ipswich.

Suffolk County Council headquarters; Endeavour House, Ipswich.

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Staff at Suffolk County Council are wasting time and money meeting in person for discussions to avoid any written trail which could be made public, its Freedom of Information manager has said.

In evidence to a commission looking at the Freedom of Information Act, Rhys Green has called for “greater protection” of staff’s internal deliberations claiming it would save staff time and money, and change the culture in the authority.

“With greater opportunity to discuss matters via an electronic method, thus negating the need to spend money on travel, accommodation and staff time on meeting arrangements, we are moving towards less written methods to discuss matters as it is less of a burden for staff to attend meetings in person, with no trail of discussion, than it is to send an email,” he told the committee in evidence submitted through its online portal.

Sandy Martin, leader of the Labour group on Suffolk County Council, said: “I believe that if there are meetings which are genuinely confidential for the protection of residents in Suffolk there can already be redacted information. I cannot see any reason why people need not say things that they are currently saying for Freedom of Information purposes unless they are trying to protect the administration from public oversight. That is precisely why the Freedom of Information Act was introduced in the first place.”

Suffolk County Council said Mr Green had appeared as a “private individual” and was not representing Suffolk County Council.

Mr Green also said in his evidence: “I believe there should be greater protection for internal deliberations, we have found in our authority, especially with increased technological advances and methods of simple written communication, the free and frank discussions that take place in our authority and joining up with others to deliberate on wider issues, has helped though the ease of the lines of communication available to us, to link up and exchange views, decisions and discussions on matters relating to improving services for the residents of ours and others authorities.

“In a pressing time of budgetary constraints and staffing cuts (with topic of devolution on the cusp of implementation nationwide) we are moving to a time of being entrusted with greater powers and decision making. It is almost obvious, that wider decisions are going to be needed with partner authorities, agencies and departments, and it is not cost efficient to bring in multiple officers from different parts of the county/country to discuss matters, now is a time to use electronic communication to its greatest potential.”

The Freedom of Information Act, which was passed in the year 2000, means public authorities are obliged to publish certain information about their activities and members of the public are entitled to request information from public authorities.

There are already exemptions in the act including allowing authorities to refuse requests, including if it would cost too much or take too much staff time to deal with the request.

The current rules already allow authorities to withhold information including if harm would arise or would be likely arise from disclosure.

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