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Release of council staff emails about failed merger project sparks Breckland Council review of openness procedures

PUBLISHED: 10:36 25 September 2012 | UPDATED: 10:40 25 September 2012

Breckland Council's chief executive Terry Huggins ordered a review after staff emails about how to deal with a Freedom of Information Act request were released

Breckland Council's chief executive Terry Huggins ordered a review after staff emails about how to deal with a Freedom of Information Act request were released

©Archant Photographic 2010

Emails revealing a council’s apparent reluctance to reveal how much a failed money-saving project cost it have prompted a review of its commitment to openness.

The exchanges between Breckland Council officers about an EDP request for information about the proposed merger of senior staff with Yarmouth Borough Council were released following a second Freedom of Information Act request.

The project, which Breckland Council said would save its taxpayers £100,000 a year, was dropped after Labour councillors opposed to the scheme won control of Yarmouth in May.

Breckland Council said it had complied with its legal obligations to release information, but admitted “in some of the emails our attitude to FoI requests comes across as negative and reluctant”.

The council had originally said it incurred indirect costs through the time chief executive Terry Huggins spent on the project, but the emails and subsequent enquiries revealed a total of nine staff had been involved.

Staff responding to the initial FoI request were only told they could release information about travel costs claimed by officers after Yarmouth had “unfortunately” released the same data for its staff.

And although Breckland on August 1 collated a breakdown of staff transport costs to Yarmouth, it told the EDP five days later it could not extract data about costs for a specific project. The £322.93 transport costs were released three weeks later following an EDP appeal.

Breckland Labour leader Terry Jermy said: “I think Breckland was embarrassed with the way the shared services panned out and they obviously wanted to put a lid on it. Some councils are very open and transparent. Breckland through my life has been more cloak and dagger and will tell you what they want to tell you.”

A council spokesman said: “Though we complied with the Act this perceived attitude is contrary to our desired aim to be open and transparent. Terry [Huggins] has asked for a review of the council’s processes and refresher training, including reinforcement of our desire to be open, is being arranged.”

The council said although it could not estimate how much officer time was spent on the project, it would be roughly the same as Yarmouth, which estimated a cost in staff time of £10,000.

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