Ssssssh, councillors are told

SUFFOLK'S local authorities are attempting to beef up secrecy rules in the county's corridors of power, The Evening Star can reveal today.

SUFFOLK'S local authorities are attempting to beef up secrecy rules in the county's corridors of power, The Evening Star can reveal today.

Several Suffolk authorities are seeking to strengthen “confidentiality protocols”.

The shake-up would effectively change the rules so it would no longer be down to council members to decide whether high-level information they believe people have a right to know about should be made public.

It raises the prospect of:

Councillors having to sign confidentiality agreements to get their hands on sensitive or highly confidential information.

Important public information no longer being leaked without the written agreement of a council chief.

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Legal or professional advice given to members no longer being disclosed without permission.

The move is understood to have come about following a summit meeting of legal chiefs from Suffolk's six district councils and the county council earlier this year.

Babergh District Council formally adopted the changes last month while moves are under way to make changes at Suffolk County Council, Mid Suffolk Council, and Suffolk Coastal.

Ipswich Council, however, has revealed it has no immediate plans to change the current system. And ??? other councils

In the past year a series of issues have been highlighted by The Evening Star following tip offs by sources within Suffolk councils relating to important public issues.

These include, possible sites for a new £600million waste incinerator, and information on the unitary debate.

At a county council meeting earlier this month it was decided that the proposed changes should not be adopted formally, rather be used as “guidance” for councillors.

A spokeswoman for Suffolk County Council said: "The standards committee has asked that the paper be reworded as guidance rather than a protocol and that a revised paper is presented to the standards committee at the December meeting ".

Is the council right to attempt to suppress leaks of important information? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail

Currently council members, and those privy to confidential reports, must not leak them unless they believe doing so is reasonable, in the public interest, made in good faith and complies with the reasonable requirements of the council.

The changes would set out a series of guidelines as to what the “reasonable requirements” of the council are, a change that would effectively remove a councillor's discretion from the decision to leak information.

Instead the councillors, co-opted councillors, or independent members, would have to jump through a series of hoops before information can be released.

These include retaining a note of the main considerations in reaching their decision, and getting the all-clear from a council boss.

Chris Mole, MP for Ipswich, said it is the duty of councils to be as open as possible with members of the public.

He added that it was important that only the most sensitive of information is made confidential to ensure councillors know where to draw the line in making decisions about disclosing.

Kevan Lim, deputy leader of the county council's Labour group, said: “The council has got to be as open as possible. The presumption should always be that information should be in the public domain unless there is an overriding reason for it not to be.”

Jeremy Pembroke, leader of Suffolk County Council said he would reserve judgment on the issue until council officers have carried out more work on the detail.

He said: “This is a very complex and difficult subject and I inherently believe in openness and have done a lot to open up this authority.

“It is much more open now than it has been previously.

“It's easy to make a premature judgement and I would like to see the proposals that come back before making a decision.”

A spokesman for Babergh District Council said: “The confidential information protocol is designed to help councillors better understand those circumstances under the code of conduct - which applies to all local authorities - where it would be acceptable for them to release otherwise confidential information into the public domain”.