Secrecy over Kate Josephs Partygate emails 'in the public interest', Sheffield Council claims

Sheffield Council has refused to release correspondence between itself and the Cabinet Office about the ‘Partygate’ investigation into the authority’s chief executive Kate Josephs - arguing that it is in the public interest to withhold the information.

Ms Josephs is currently on paid leave from her £190,000-a-year job at the council as an internal investigation takes place into a lockdown-breaking ‘leaving do’ party that was held in December 2020 as she departed her Cabinet Office role as director general of the Covid Taskforce. In January, an update from civil servant Sue Gray into wider allegations of lockdown rule-breaking in Government confirmed that the event involving Ms Josephs was one of 12 under police investigation.

Following a Freedom of Information request by The Yorkshire Post, Sheffield Council has confirmed it does hold correspondence with the Cabinet Office about the issue but is refusing to release it.

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An independent investigator has been appointed, but not publicly named, by the council into the matter and is due to report back findings to a cross-party committee.

An internal investigation has been ordered into Sheffield Council chief executive Kate Josephs' involvement in Partygate.

The council’s FoI response setting out its reasons for refusal 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.”

At the time of the party of December 17, 2020, restrictions on gatherings of two or more people applied in London. Ms Josephs released a statement and apologised just minutes before the Daily Telegraph published the story on January 14. She had repeatedly denied to local journalists that she had been involved in any Downing Street parties.

Her statement said she had gathered with colleagues that were at work that day but it was later revealed an email was sent to 40 guests.

Director taking acting chief executive duties

Eugene Walker, Sheffield Council’s Executive Director for Resources, has become Acting Chief Executive while Ms Josephs remains on ‘discretionary leave’.

When the decision was announced last month, council leader Terry Fox said: “There’s no doubt this has been a challenging time for the council, but I’ve said before that our workforce have been fantastic and I want to thank them again for continuing to drive this city forward. We have so much to look forward to in Sheffield this year and together we will continue to deliver for this city.”

He said Mr Walker would be supported by other senior managers.

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