One council appeared to save hundreds of thousands of pounds on the Olympic Torch Relay by getting Olympic organisers LOCOG to pay their costs – but for six months they have denied having any records of how that happened. Carol Miers reports on the curious case of Somerset County Council.
By any standards Somerset County Council (SCC) was a model of restraint in the way that it handled itself during the bidding to host the Olympic Torch Relay.
Conservative councillor David Huxtable attracted national attention when he turned down the opportunity to bid to host the relay, saying the authority would have “no control over the route, and the possible costs”.
And when Olympic organisers LOCOG eventually agreed to pay the costs of the authority hosting the relay, the council proudly announced that:
“Somerset County Council was the first local authority in the country to take the decision not to bid for the relay last year because of the cost implications when it was trying to save money. That stance now looks to have paid off.”
When Help Me Investigate decided to follow the money behind the Olympic Torch Relay in summer 2012, we asked Somerset County Council for details of their impressive negotiations with LOCOG.
Their response was far from helpful. And in trying to fob Help Me Investigate off, they tied themselves up in knots.
We asked for correspondence with LOCOG. Their first response was to claim that:
“All Council correspondence with LOCOG was with one particular Council Officer who was on a short and fixed-term contract. This staff member has long since left this authority, and in line with good information governance practice, his emails and non-essential records have all long since been deleted or destroyed.”
No other staff member had, they claimed, been party to any correspondence with LOCOG.
We asked what the ‘good practice’ was which had led to the destruction of those records, – in the form of their Records Management Policy. They replied:
“The Somerset County Council Records Management Policy is still in draft form, having recently been revised, and not ready to be released yet into the public domain.”
We persisted, and requested the policy that was in operation at the time that the member of staff left. After another long wait – we got it.
Somerset change their story
This, however, caused a problem for Somerset. We had discovered that the ‘staff member’ had actually left SCC in August 2011, barely fifteen months before our first FOI request.
But the SCC’s ‘good information governance policy’ said general administrative and correspondence files, project files or those to do with public consultations should not be destroyed for five years.
When questioned about this, Somerset County Council changed their story. They said:
“Somerset County Council officers held verbal conversations with … LOCOG. These verbal conversations were not recorded, and the officers … have now left the organisation, we are therefore unable to provide any further data.”
Meanwhile, our request for “all documents relating to the Olympic torch relay decision” continues to go unanswered.
Seven months on from our initial FOI request, we have decided to go public with the questions we would like to ask SCC:
- Why would verbal conversations relating to such a major event not be recorded in any form (for instance, minutes, or internal communication to update colleagues following the conversations)?
- Why would LOCOG’s communication relating to an event involving so many staff not leave any record outside of one individual?
- What do they class ‘non-essential’ documents, i.e. those that were ‘destroyed’ in their initial responses?
- But most importantly, the central question remains unanswered: what did they negotiate with LOCOG after the March 24 2010 meeting where they decided to ‘do nothing’ in relation to applying for the Olympic Torch Relay route?
We approached SCC press office for a response but by the time of publication they had not provided one.
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