Register of interests closer to going online

MOVES to let the public go online to check the register of interests of county councillors came a step closer this week - but only if members give their permission and agree to tidy them up first.

MOVES to let the public go online to check the register of interests of county councillors came a step closer this week - but only if members give their permission and agree to tidy them up first.

Norfolk County Council's standards committee agreed to recommend to the full council that it should look to putting the register online.

But the committee said the register, which is already available for the public to inspect at County Hall, should be rechecked to make sure it was suitable for publication because the current version is handwritten and there were fears over its accuracy and legibility.

Voters can already go online to look at the register of members interests for MPs.

Other councils including Norwich and Waveney have already opted to put the register of members' interests online, while at Suffolk County Council details are published if the councillor gives permission.

County council leader Daniel Cox gave an election pledge earlier this year to publish details of councillors' and senior officers expenses claims online following the furore over the MPs expenses scandal.

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But Mr Cox asked the committee to give its verdict on doing the same thing for the register before a decision is made.

The register contains details of members business and property interests and whether they belong to organisations such as the freemasons, and supporters of greater openness believe there is no reason why it should not be a mouse click away.

Lib Dem committee member David Callaby said he was happy for the register to go online.

'I have no problem with that information being on the internet,' he said. 'It's already in the register and the public are entitled to see it so there's no difference.'

Green councillor Richard Bearman suggested councillors should switch from a paper to an electronic register because he felt it would be cheaper, use less paper, and easier to update.

'We should seriously consider putting it online because certainly the younger generation would look at it that way,' he said.

But he didn't believe the register, which members fill in by hand should be simply scanned and published.

'It's not in a fit state to be published on the internet some of the handwriting is indecipherable,' Mr Bearman added. 'It would need considerably more work to make it in a fit state to be published.'

Conservative councillor Gerry Cook, who was only elected to the council, said members needed to look at their entries again before they went online.

'I had only just been elected when we filled these forms in,' he said. 'Before I see them published I would like to look at them again to make sure no mistakes have been made.'

However, some independent committee members questioned the need to go online after the meeting was told that only one person had looked at it in the last 12 months.

Canon Edward Turner, committee vice-chairman, said he was not happy about some of the information he had been asked to supply.

'I object strongly to putting on which church I go to,' he said. 'I think it's quite outrageous. I don't think there is any need to do it. The other issue is confidentiality, which is very important to the clergy.

'If I had known this when I was first asked to join the authority I would probably have refused,' he added. 'As it happens this is my last meeting, but if it wasn't I would probably resign.

'I wouldn't want my interests to be made available to the browsing public.'

Michael Collis said the costs of putting the register online should also be looked at.

'Only one person has looked at this document and it should be borne in mind that it isn't a popular document,' he said. 'This is not going to be free, and it's taxpayers money. It isn't a document that the public are terribly interested in.'

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