Council bosses in Sunderland are under fire for refusing to reveal details of a potential six-figure pay-off to former chief executive Dave Smith – despite being legally obliged to do so.
Dr Smith left Sunderland City Council less than a month after a damning Ofsted report branded its Children’s Services inadequate in every area.
A number of individuals – and the Echo – have all had requests for the figure to be made public, under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), refused.
The authority has also not explained why it is digging its heels in because the sum will inevitably be made public when its annual accounts are published.
The refusal comes in the wake of the Government scrapping plans to introduce changes to the FOI Act, after a campaign by the media – including the Echo.
Our request for details of Dr Smith’s pay-off received the following response from business development manager Steve Hanratty:
“This element of your request has been considered and is refused under S41.(1)(b) of the Freedom of Information Act – the disclosure of the information to the public (otherwise than under this Act) by the public authority holding it would constitute a breach of confidence actionable by that or any other person.”
We also asked why the decision about Dr Smith’s settlement was taken by the authority’s human resources committee, as opposed to the full council.
Mr Hanratty replied: “The HR committee had the information and the authority to make this decision.”
Retired IT and telecommunications worker Kay Rowham, of Hetton, also made an FOI request.
She was informed: “Although the council does hold this information, it is considered to be exempt under the Freedom of Information Act Section 40(3) – Personal information.”
Sunderland Conservatives chairman Alan Wright also wrote to the Department for Communities and Local Government.
In his letter, he asked why – contrary to government guidelines – the payment was not brought to full council but agreed behind closed doors.
Mr Wright also pointed out that, according to Localism Act guidance, full councils should vote on pay deals over £100,000 and publicly justify severance money.
A reply from the Minister for Local Government, Marcus Clark MP, said that, while councils are independent employers, they must not forget that they have a duty to act in the interest of local tax payers.
Mr Clark went on to say that measures to cap public sector exit payments at £95,000 are expected to be in force by this autumn.
He added: “We have been clear that councils should not be using severance agreements or confidentiality clauses to cover up examples of poor performance or organisational failure.
“To be clear, councils cannot use confidentiality agreements to hide details of a chief executive’s severance payment.
“That information, along with full details of their remuneration, must be published as part of the annual statement of accounts.”
Sunderland City Council issued a statement saying: “The council is aware of its statutory duties on this matter and will meet them in due course.”