We are being kept in the dark too often

After the controversy over rising fuel prices and the row over the appointment of Andrea Hill who began work as new Suffolk chief executive yesterday, PAUL GEATER argues that the public need much more information about the issues that govern our lives.

Paul Geater

After the controversy over rising fuel prices and the row over the appointment of Andrea Hill who began work as new Suffolk chief executive yesterday, PAUL GEATER argues that the public need much more information about the issues that govern our lives.

AS LIFE becomes tougher for more and more people in this country - and especially in Suffolk - there is a growing tendency to try to deny the public the information we need to make the best of our lives.

The latest organisation to jump on to this secrecy bandwagon has been Suffolk County Council which has developed a huge “communications” department and now seems determined that it should be used to actually prevent the public from knowing what the authority is up to.

The latest, and most controversial, indication of this attempt to keep us in the dark has been the appointment of Andrea Hill as the new chief executive on a salary of £220,000.

The departure of Mike More, announced in December just as the government decided that it was to review the whole structure of councils throughout Suffolk and Norfolk, gave the county the opportunity to take a breath and consider whether it was appropriate to appoint a new full-time chief when the future of the authority was in doubt.

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If senior members considered that idea, it must have been behind closed doors because it was never debated in public.

Instead the process of appointing a new chief executive was put into motion by employing a team of headhunters - at a cost of £49,000 - and finally resulted with the appointment of Mrs Hill.

When The Star first heard of Mike More's appointment, we did an internet search to find his possible successor. It took about two minutes and the name at the top of the list was... Andrea Hill. We probably didn't spend 49p in time on that search - yet the council have not told the voters what the £49,000 was spent on!

Council leader Jeremy Pembroke insists it is not right to say that Mrs Hill will earn £220,000 - her salary is in the band £154,000 to £220,000.

However, that is not the point. The voters of Suffolk deserve to know how much the county council is prepared to pay its top officer - so they can decide whether he or she is worth it and can therefore give their verdict on the councillors who made the appointment at the next elections.

Mike More recognised that and has never been shy to say what he earns.

With the appointment of Mrs Hill, things are different - the council insists she is being paid between £154,000 and £220,000.

Who do they think they are kidding? If Mrs Hill was being paid £154,000, why move the initial cap from £176,000?

And if she knows that the council is prepared to pay up to £220,000, what are the chances that a high-flying executive would be prepared to accept less than that?

Of course in practice there have been enough leaks from the county to indicate that £220,000 is the salary - but it is arrogant of the administration to think the county's voters don't deserve to have that spelt out so they can make an informed choice at the next election.

It is also arrogance for Britain's MPs not to tell us exactly what they spend their expenses on. The voters don't have a right to know what they spend their salary on, but they do have the right to know what their expenses go on - whether it is a salary for their wife or husband or a new kitchen in their London flat.

The government also needs to be much more accountable with how it spends its money - and to tell the voters exactly where the cash goes.

Earlier this year it emerged that salaries for GPs had rocketed since new contracts were agreed - but the hours they worked had fallen significantly.

That kind of revelation, coming years after the changes were introduced, does nothing to inspire confidence.

The public also needs information in its battle against huge profit-making corporations.

This month we have turned the spotlight on fuel prices, in an attempt to help motorists find the best deals in the area.

The surveys have shown some astonishing facts - two petrol stations selling the same fuel barely two miles apart had prices several pence a litre different. Since the survey started, the prices have been brought into line.

It is not possible to have anyone fixing prices - and any attempt to standardise prices across the town would result in a Monopolies' Commission investigation.

Giving consumers the chance to drive past the station on the A14 and head to Wherstead Road, Ipswich, to save 4p a litre is the best possible way of ensuring prices are kept down.This is precisely what has happened.

That isn't what the big corporations want - some firms have been reluctant to give us fuel prices so we have to drive around the town to find out - but it is the only way to ensure the consumer has enough information to make the right choice.

Whether it is the actions of councils, government, or large companies, the only way that ordinary people can influence them is if they are given the full information.

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