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November 8, 2017 11:50 AM

A 'gagging clause' in the small print of an agreement by all the councils in Devon and Somerset to set up a special new 'Joint Committee' will stop the media and residents from asking questions about how public money is being spent.

The Joint Committee is being set up by local authorities across the two counties as a stepping stone to a more powerful Combined Authority, with £89,000 earmarked to run the new committee in the first year.

Devon's Liberal Democrats have spotted that tucked away in the small print of the agreement to set up the Joint Committee is an all-embracing 'gagging clause' that will prevent any of the member councils from making any comment or public statement without first agreeing it with all 18 authorities.

The Liberal Democrats are already concerned that the new Joint Committee is an extra layer of council bureaucracy that will soak up scarce cash which could be used for hard-pressed front line council services.

Alan ConnettCllr Alan Connett, Leader of the Liberal Democrats at County Hall in Exeter, said:" We're already concerned by the money being given to run this new Joint Committee but it's clear from the agreement that it will be almost impossible to get any information about what it's doing and the progress it's making.

" The gagging clause says that no member council can make any public statement or issue a press release or publish any other document about the work of the Joint Committee unless all the other councils in this club agree first.

"Where's the openness and transparency. Where's the accountability so that the media and residents can see what is being done with their hard earned money paid over in Council Tax.

"The Liberal Democrats have challenged this and we were told that's not what the agreement intended. That it's not a gagging clause. The problem is, the words are very clear. No council can say or publish anything without the agreement of the other 18. That's secrecy and it runs against the principle of openness that councils usually follow," added Cllr Connett.