A Freedom of Information request by the Yorkshire Post confirmed the authority does hold correspondence with the Cabinet Office about the issue but it is withholding it, arguing that keeping it secret is in the public interest.
Kate Josephs is currently on paid leave from her £190,000 a year role while Eugene Walker, a senior council officer who is normally paid around £150,000 a year, is covering for her on extra pay – the amount of which has not yet been confirmed.
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It follows Ms Josephs admitting in a statement on social media that she gathered with colleagues in the Cabinet Office for drinks during lockdown to mark the end of her time as head of the government’s Covid Taskforce.
The council appointed an external investigator, who has not been named, to report back to a cross party committee with findings to inform their decision on what should be done.
Councillor Terry Fox, leader of the council, said “people have got to look in the mirror” in relation to what happened.
The council said there is a rigid process that needs to be followed that forms part of the contract for any statutory officer and there is very little information it can share publicly, therefore it will not be commenting on the progress of the investigation while it takes place.
An update from civil servant Sue Gray into wider allegations of lockdown rule-breaking in the heart of government confirmed that the event was one of 12 under police investigation.
The council’s explanation for not releasing its correspondence
The council’s FOI response to the Yorkshire Post said: “The information you have requested falls within the scope of an ongoing investigation into Kate Josephs’ actions. We believe that the disclosure of this information has the potential to affect and hinder the investigation process. The council needs to be able to investigate the complaint in the strictest confidence to ensure natural justice.”
The response said that while there is a “public interest in transparency and accountability to promote public understanding and debate”, it believes this is outweighed in this case by “the potential to affect and hinder the ongoing investigation into Kate Josephs’ actions and would likely prejudice the outcome”.
It added: “The independent investigator and the cross-party Senior Officers Employment Sub-Committee need space to undertake confidential consideration of the issues before them if they are to fully explore all aspects of the case, without fear that information relevant to the investigation was being placed in the public domain, leading to undue speculation without all material facts and distracting from the formal process.
“We conclude that the balance of the public interest lies in withholding this information so that we can uphold the principle of natural justice. Kate Josephs’ actions should receive a fair and unbiased hearing in the confidentiality of a councillor-led process.”