Thurrock Council accused of avoiding scrutiny during lockdown

Thurrock Council has come under fire for failing to communicate with the media during the coronavirus pandemic, raising fears that the authority is “saying goodbye to democracy”.

Since the Covid-19 lockdown came into effect in March, Thurrock Council has been sending out short briefings to members of the press, but has refused to answer questions – preventing the authority from being held to account.

It has also told all members of the media not to contact council leaders, members of the cabinet and the mayor directly, despite all of them being elected officials accountable to the public.

It means that any crucial questions during a time of national emergency are going unanswered.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service contacted Thurrock Council to ask how many questions from the media they had responded since lockdown began – they did not respond.

There was also no response to questions about why they had limited contact with local press during Covid-19 and why they had told press not to contact elected councillors, who the public would expect to be available at a time of crisis.

Opposition Labour leader Councillor Jane Pothecary said: “These are very difficult times and we appreciate the challenges the council is facing, we know they have a lot to manage and to communicate and we need to let officers get on with the job.

“However, as a responsible opposition, we believe scrutiny is important to make sure the council is serving the needs of all our residents at this difficult time. The local press is vital in this regard.

“Portfolio holders are paid to lead. Part of that leadership is answering tricky questions in a timely and truthful manner.

“Regardless of party interests, the day we accept that our politicians – or officers – are above question is the day we start saying goodbye to democracy.”

In an unprecedented move, rival media outlets covering the borough have come together to condemn the council’s actions.

In a letter sent to the council’s chief executive Lyn Carpenter, the leaders of all political parties and MPs Jackie Doyle-Price and Stephen Metcalfe said a formal complaint was going to be submitted to the government’s information commissioner.

“I find it grossly offensive that you are wilfully ignoring news reporting services that are legitimately representing the interests of Thurrock people and democracy,” he wrote.

“You appear to believe Thurrock Council is unaccountable to the public and has no responsibility to respond the media.

“May I remind you that is completely against your own constitution. It is against the LGA guidelines. It is against the Information Commissioner’s guidelines.

“It is in total contradiction to all the guidelines given out by the government.

“In short you are standing alone and showing contempt not just for the media but the people of Thurrock.”

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter