Home News Bristol City Council criticised for secrecy over confidential legal report

Bristol City Council criticised for secrecy over confidential legal report

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A top opposition councillor has criticised the secrecy surrounding a mysterious report going to Bristol City Council cabinet next week.

The item, listed only as “Confidential legal report”, is highly unusual in that it gives no indication whatsoever what it relates to.

Although exempt items at local authority meetings are kept from public view and discussed behind closed doors, they are routinely given titles that make it transparent what they’re about, even legal briefings that carry privileged information.

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But the council says this is a “rare case” involving a high level of confidentiality and that an “ongoing legal adjudication” means the report cannot be made available to scrutiny members until after cabinet, which meets on Tuesday, November 2, to make a decision.

Both the opaque nature of the item’s title and the ban on pre-decision scrutiny are against the normal process.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service understands from multiple council sources that it concerns metrobus, although that only deepens the mystery because contracts for that project were finalised years ago and there has been no obvious recent major development.

But it does tie in with the only clue as to its subject matter – a link on the city council’s website to the item’s background reveals the relevant councillor as the cabinet member for transport, the recently appointed Cllr Don Alexander.

The item is restricted because of “commercial confidentiality”, the meeting’s papers say.

They add that the report requires a “key” decision, which can be made only by cabinet, in that it affects communities in two or more wards.

The only other reason for a key decision would be that it involves a funding commitment exceeding £500,000, although this is not given in this case.

That definition is in a city council document called “The Mayor’s Executive Scheme of Delegation” which also includes this sentence: “The mayor is committed to engaging with citizens and partners and to ensuring that the decision-making process is transparent.”

What opposition councillors say

Resources scrutiny commission chairman and longtime Conservative Cllr Geoff Gollop said this was anything but transparent.

He said: “The only time I can ever recall anything like this happening was under George Ferguson when it involved a contract being taken in-house which contained very confidential information.

“And even then, scrutiny was allowed to have access to the information in the end.

“I have never come across it being done so blatantly that we are not even allowed to know what it’s about.

“That cannot be in the spirit of the legislation over scrutiny because how can we hold anyone to account if we don’t know the first thing about it?

“I try to be reasonable and I have asked about this but have been told that scrutiny would be allowed to see the information only after the decision has been made at cabinet and in confidence.

“There may be things that for good reasons we are not allowed to see but not to even know what this is about suggests it is quite serious.

“If it is metrobus-related then it is hard to imagine what the issue could be, given all the agreements around metrobus happened a long time ago, and why they can’t share it with us.”

Bristol City Council’s response

A council spokesperson said: “Bristol City Council will usually make exempt information in relation to business affairs of the authority or another party available to members of scrutiny prior to cabinet meetings on a confidential basis.

“In rare cases, such as this, it is necessary to have decisions made by the executive that must remain confidential for legal reasons.

“This case, due to an ongoing legal adjudication, requires this level of confidentiality and means that restricted access to the report cannot be given to members ahead of the meeting.

“Members will be able to access the report on request following the meeting.’’

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