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FOI Act helps news group keep check on Government quango spending

The Kent Messenger Group has revealed how a Government quango responsible for boosting jobs in Kent spent almost £250,000 of public money on corporate hospitality and entertainment in five months last year.

Political editor Paul Francis uncovered how the South East England Development Agency spent £247,591 entertaining clients, businesses and politicians at a series of events between June and November, after making a successful request for details of the spending under the Freedom of Information Act.

His findings were published in all KMG’s newspapers and “raised a few eyebrows” among readers.

Paul found one of the costliest events paid for by the quango was an awards ceremony at Thorpe Park in Surrey, which was hosted by TV presenter Natasha Kaplinsky.

More than 400 guests, including several firms from Kent, were entertained at a dinner for the agency’s annual Sustainable Business Awards ceremony, which saw awards given to businesses that had ‘generated cost efficiencies’ – it cost the taxpayer £124,225.

He also found that during the same month agency executives entertained a specially-invited group of business chiefs to share a hospitality box at Twickenham to watch England play Australia, costing nearly £6,000.

It also hosted a high-profile black tie dinner at London’s Hampton Court to support London’s Olympic 2012 bid.

The evening was attended by a dozen of the agency’s executives, Olympic athletes from the south east and representatives of Sport England. The £21,017 it cost to stage the event included £6,748 on food and drink.

Paul said the FOI Act had become a useful tool since it came into force in January.

He said: “The information hadn’t previously been in the public domain and the test was whether the quango was truly accountable.

“We’ve had one or two good successes and as far as I’m concerned the Act is working well.

“Had I made the requests prior to the Act coming into force I’m pretty confident that I would not have been given the information from the local council press officer or whatever, and so the Act is proving its worth.”

  • KMG also reported that the development agency had defended the money spent on entertainment and hospitality. In a statement, it said it reviewed “all expenditure in such areas to ensure they directly address our strategic goals and provide very good value for money”.

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