Council ordered to release cuts report

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PRIVATE reports revealing options for savage public spending cuts in Scarborough will have to be released to the public, it has been ruled.

PRIVATE reports revealing options for savage public spending cuts in Scarborough will have to be released to the public, it has been ruled.

Scarborough Council have tried to keep the two potentially explosive reports by efficiency consultants Northgate Public Services under wraps and refused a Freedom of Information Act request from the Evening News to release them.

However, following a complaint, the Information Commissioner ruled in favour of the Evening News and ordered the local authority to hand over the previously classified documents.

The council has been warned that it could be held in contempt of court if it does not comply with the ruling.

In the decision notice issued to both the council and the Evening News, it is stated: “The Commissioner’s decision is that the public authority did not deal with the request in accordance with the requirements of the Act.

“The Commissioner found that one of the reports was exempt but that, apart from a small amount of information, the public interest in maintaining the exemption did not outweigh the public interest in disclosure. The second report was not exempt.”

Scarborough Council was also found to be in procedural breach of the Freedom of Information Act as it did not answer the request, first made on September 20 last year, within 20 working days.

When the council refused to release the two disputed reports, it argued that making them public would make council officers and staff members less likely to give free and frank advice when discussing potential cuts.

However, in one of the reports, which detailed the proposed contractual agreement between the council and Northgate in February 2010, there was nothing to suggest that views of staff members had been canvassed at all.

The Commissioner ruled that the opinion of Ian Anderson, the council’s head of legal services, had not been reasonable when he applied the exemption and refused to disclose the information.

In the earlier report, dated January 29 2010 and described as “forthright and detailed”, the Commissioner accepted that the exemption had applied but ruled that the report should still be released with names and job titles of staff removed.

In the ruling notice, it was added: “The Commissioner accepts that disclosure of the rest of the report would be likely to make staff more careful about how they phrase their comments in the future.

“However, he does not accept that it would inhibit them to the extent that they would fail to contribute constructively to such an important debate. In his view there is a considerable incentive for staff to take part in discussions which could potentially affect their jobs.

“He considers disclosure of a redacted version of the report to be a proportionate response in the circumstances of the case.”

Responding to the Commissioner’s ruling on the January report, Mr Anderson said: “I take reassurance from the Information Commissioner’s decision that the approach I took in determining the Scarborough Evening News’ request for information was reasonable.

“I recognise that in applying the public interest test, the Information Commissioner has decided that on balance part of the information should be disclosed.”

The council has been ordered to release the documents by October 26.

Mr Anderson added: “The council will therefore publish the information on its website once the information that the Information Commissioner has agreed should be edited, has been removed.”