Cambridge paper brands its district council 'secretive'

By Sarah Lagan

The Cambridge Evening News has hit back at a local council for holding a series of meetings behind closed doors.

Editor Murray Morse decided to print a front page picture and double-page spread with the headline “Top Secret”

following
a string of measures which he claims were used by South Cambridgeshire
District Council to prevent the release of information – despite
requests made through the new Freedom of Information Act.

Last
week the council banned the media from a special cabinet meeting to
discuss whether travellers should be evicted from an illegal campsite.

Since
November the Evening News has campaigned for the government to tackle
illegal camps and provide authorities with the finance and authority to
create legal sites.

According to reports in the paper, the
council has spent more than £200,000 of taxpayers’ money in the past
year on lawyers handling travellers’ camps in the area.

Morse
said: “With the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act this
year, politicians were supposed to become more accountable, not less.

“We were determined to show our readers the problems that we faced.

“We
spoke to people involved in the traveller problem and organisations
such as the Campaign for Freedom of Information, as well as a number of
councillors who also opposed the measures.

“Obviously there will
be a rare occasion when a discussion will have to be held in private,
but if there is any doubt whatsoever the meeting should be open to the
public and press.” The paper claims this is the latest in a series of
measures used by the council to prevent the release of information,
including the findings of an investigation into how nearly £500,000
went missing from the council’s direct labour organisation.

Officers
also refused to disclose how councillors voted when a controversial 100
per cent council tax increase was passed, saying that the media should
have requested the information before the debate.

In response to
the criticism, South Cambridgeshire District Council released the
following statement: “On the basis of the Local Government Act, the
press and public were excluded from the meeting because information in
the reports for discussion contained information, which, if disclosed,
would reveal proposals that South Cambridgeshire District Council might
pass a legal notice on a person or give orders for such a notice to be
made.

“The subject matter of all three reports was such that they
included information covering confidential policing and contract issues
in relation to named individuals.

“It would not be in the public interest to disclose such information at this stage.”

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