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Chief reporter wins access to financial dealings despite failed FOI request

The Eastern Daily Press has finally been able to report on the financial details of a Norfolk council after the paper threatened to report it to the local government watchdog.

Dereham deputy chief reporter James Goffin spent months trying to get details of a year-long contract for legal advice between Breckland council and Norwich lawyers Steeles, but had a request under the Freedom of Information Act turned down on the grounds of commercial sensitivity.

Not giving up, James instead decided to use the Local Government Act 1972 provisions instead.

They require councils to publish agendas, reports and minutes of meetings, and although there is an exception for commercial details there is a qualification that says it only applies when it could affect a specific contract – which means after that contract is sealed the information should be released.

James said: “Breckland also resisted that as well, but I pursued it through their complaints procedure, which leads to the Local Government Ombudsman.

“I mentioned a complaint to the LGO on Friday afternoon and I had the full report on Monday morning.”

The success – which meant the EDP could reveal that the deal will cost taxpayers £79,000 over the next year – followed an earlier investigation into the contract last year.

When first awarded on a temporary basis the council dealt with it in public, but the contract became private when it was awarded for a year-long deal.

As the FOI Act was not yet in force, James used the Audit Commission Act 1998 to get a copy of the contract.

The ACA gives people the right to view their council’s accounts and associated documents for 20 days a year while they are being checked by the Audit Commission, with the exception of personal information about staff.

James said: “For Breckland that was September last year, but it took me until November to see all the documents I wanted because the council said I couldn’t use the act because I don’t live in their district.

“I successfully used a 1994 case between Bristol City Council and HTV that found that businesses in the area have the same rights, and as the paper has offices in the district it pays business rates and does qualify.

“The lesson is that while the FOI Act is a good tool, it is not the only way of wringing details out of councils.

“It can take some persistence but it is important not to get put off at the first hurdle – you need to be prepared to appeal and argue your way through.”