Business dealings of Leeds council staff to be made public? Internal report recommends ‘yes’

It looks like Leeds City Council could well be joining the very select band of UK councils that make public the outside business dealings of their key staff.

The Council’s Scrutiny Board (Resources and Council Services) is to debate an internal inquiry/report containing a recommendation to that effect when it meets on Monday 3rd October.

Nothing’s going to happen just yet (for reasons explained below), and not every single element of council officers’ declarations of interest is going to be published, but the inquiry comes out clearly in favour of disclosure.

It’s even being proposed that the publication go way beyond the half dozen senior officers you might expect, and extend to the over 2,000 employees deemed by Leeds Council to be in ‘high risk’ posts.

The report’s authors say that after trawling 60 council websites in the UK, they could find only three that published officers’ interests.

Current system ‘fit for purpose’ but…

Leeds Council employees are currently obliged to make declarations of interest once a year and the information collected is stored on an internal council database. The information is then shared “only as far as is necessary to assess and monitor any conflict of interest”, according to the report.

Where the 2,135 ‘high risk’ employees are concerned, the declarations are currently passed up the line to their director who assesses whether there’s any actual or potential conflict of interest.

As an administrative process, the report says, it is “fit for purpose”.

“Our concern however is not about administrative processes but the extent to which the information collected on interests should be made publicly available,” it adds.

Online publication

How do they say the council employees’ declarations of interest should be made public under the proposed new system? Well, in pretty much the same way as the declarations of councillors, which are posted up on the council’s website for all to pick over.

Here’s an example of one, picked out at random.

“We are of the view that a similar publication scheme should be required of officers,” the Scrutiny report says. “It is our view that officers’ Interests are equally important in an increasingly officer led council.

“This is not about prying into officers’ private lives but about openness and transparency in decision making which reflects our values with regards to being ‘open, honest and trusted.”

Transparency campaigner

So far so good. But when is all this going to happen and which of the council officers’ interests are going to be made public?

Well, a lot of this is dependent on what happens to a landmark decision made earlier this year by the UK’s Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, over a freedom of information request put by transparency campaigner John Greenwood to Bolton Council.

In that decision the Commissioner ruled that Bolton Council make public parts of the declarations of interest of its senior officers, omitting other parts deemed to be private under data protection law. The Council has apparently appealed against the decision.

What’s being recommended to the Leeds Council leadership is that they begin publication of senior officers’ declarations as soon as possible after the Bolton appeal is decided (I don’t know when that will be).

Here’s what we’ll get

What they’ll be publishing is those parts of the declarations of interest that the Information Commissioner ruled should be disclosed “because the public interest test for publication overwhelmed the officers’ right to privacy”.

So, this is what we’ll be getting, hopefully:

• Name (of council employee)
• Department
• Section
• Name and address and nature of additional business, or other employment
• Name and address of Company, firm or other body or individual of whom consultancy is undertaken and nature of the consultancy with an indication of frequency or volume of such work.
• Name and address and nature of business of each company or other body of which you (council employee) are a Director, with an indication of whether it is in a paid or unpaid capacity.
• Name and address and nature of business of each firm with which you are a partner
• Name and address and nature of business of each company in which you hold shares
• Name and address of the organisation to whom you are engaged on a retainer basis and nature of the retainer

Once the senior officers’ declarations are under way it’s proposed that Leeds Council “works towards a scheme where ‘high risk’ posts and other groups of staff where there is a specific justification for publication based on their particular duties are included”.

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