Thursday, 13 January 2011

Council refuses to reveal details of gifts and hospitality given to officers

Cornwall Council is refusing to make public the gifts and hospitality given to its officers and is only releasing limited details of those given to councillors.

Both officers and elected councillors take important decisions which affect the lives and businesses of the people of Cornwall as well as companies up and down the land. It is vital that such decisions are taken without undue influence, bribery and corruption. I have no reason to suspect that any officer or councillor has been bribed, but the Council's current policy appears to make it easier for this to happen if the will was there.

Each councillor has to make a declaration of interests - ie any land that they own or lease, their business interests and any groups or committees that they are members of. We also have to declare any gifts or hospitality that we receive which may be valued at more than £25.

A local newspaper made a Freedom of Information request to ask for the details of gifts and hospitality received by both members and officers. The response was to refuse to give any details for officers, saying that these were personal matters and individuals had a right to expect privacy.

I respect the fact that this might be Cornwall Council's policy, but, if so, it is just plain wrong. We are not asking for details of the Christmas presents received by officers - just gifts and hospitality which are received in connection with their work for the Council.

The Council has only released limited details of the gifts and hospitality received by elected members. They have said the type of gifts received (including rugby tickets, bottles of wine and meals) but not who received them. This is a matter of policy, but again I think it is wrong.

I have asked the Council's legal officers to provide me with the full details of the policies concerned and I will be seeking to change that policy so that all gifts and hospitality valued over £25 which are given to members or officers and available for public inspection. Cornwall Council needs to be seen to be clear of undue influence and this, in my opinion, is the best way to achieve this.

UPDATE - There's some movement on this already. At this morning's scrutiny meeting, it was reported that a new group has been set up to look at the Council's communications and transparency policies. I have asked the group to look at this issue and they have agreed.

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