Greenwich Council has held a series of behind-closed-doors meetings to discuss cuts to voluntary sector.
Members of the press were asked to leave the second of three Overview and Scrutiny sessions on Tuesday as volunteer organisations would ask the council for cash.
The council said the meetings were being held in secret as they dealt with sensitive finanical information – with the council tasked with cutting £1.3m from the sector’s funding pot.
Grants totalling £2.93m are available following government cuts, and 99 applications were received from 63 groups requesting a total of £4.7m.
Tuesday’s meeting started a few minutes after another scrutiny committee told council officers to reconsider a £1.3m three-year deal to print and distribute Greenwich Info, its fortnightly freesheet.
Chair Chris Lloyd took the session behind closed doors following legal advice, despite challenges from two members of the press that the matters were in the public interest.
Lloyd said: “The items are sensitive information that cannot be heard in public.
“I know that members of the press present have expressed concerns about this, they have spoken to the legal officer but as this is protected information we are discussing about the third sector they cannot be present for the rest of the session.”
Standard practice in local authorities requires that papers classified as private are only heard behind closed doors.
In this case, although the agenda did not state the entire meeting would be secret, individual reports were instead restricted.
‘Not acceptable to turn away journalists’
Matt Hartley, the leader of the Conservative opposition, said this could have been made much clearer.
He said: “It could have been much clearer that the meetings were being held in closed session due to the confidential information being discussed, and it’s not acceptable that local journalists had to be turned away.
“It’s true that there have been concerns about the appeals process – I don’t see why the committee couldn’t have met in January, with more time for both councillors and organisations to prepare.
“That said, the task for council officers was huge and obviously decisions over sharing out a shrinking funding pot are always going to be difficult.
“It’s important to say, too, that Cllr Chris Lloyd chaired what was a challenging and complex process very well – he deserves credit for that.”
A council spokesman said the meeting followed the regular and legal format.
The spokesman said: “The agenda for the meeting this week follows the usual format, and shows that it included information exempt under paragraph three of part one of Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972.
“This means that the matter would not be dealt with in public and that the chair would ask any press and members of the public to leave before consideration of that item. In this particular instance all the items were exempt.
“If you click into the individual agenda items you can see that these are exempt.
“We apologise for any inconvenience caused but this agenda has been issued in the same style as all our other agendas.”
853 was among the media outlets challenging the decision. Are you affected by Greenwich Council’s cuts to voluntary groups? Get in touch with 853 and tell your story; we’ll withhold names if need be. Email tell853something[at]gmail.com.
Tom Bull is the Local Democracy Reporter for Greenwich. The Local Democracy Reporter Scheme is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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