Thursday, 25 August 2011

Scottish Water failings outline exactly why Freedom of Information coverage must be extended

UNISON last week ‘celebrated’ a ruling from Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion that Scottish Water must reveal costings of PFI contracts that have been operational for some 10 or more years. The celebrations - which mark another step in the union’s long term campaign against this expensive and increasingly bizarre way of funding public service capital expenditure - may however have been somewhat muted.
One reason for this is that not all the information was able to be released. Incredibly Scottish Water do not hold Full Business Cases(FBCs) for nine multi-million pound PFI projects. That is, the documents that purport to show why the paying of £600 million in capital costs, and the continued paying of £130m a year of our money to private contractors to build, and operate sewage works, water treatment works and other vital public services is a good deal, don’t exist (at least in Scottish Water’s hands)!
So, while (courtesy of the Act, and Mr Dunion) we know what the projects are costing (although Scottish Water didn’t want to tell us all of that), we do not know what alternatives were investigated, and we do not know why other methods of funding were discounted - although we can make a guess! 
One of the excuses that Scottish Water used was that the contracts were entered into before they existed, by the previous water authorities. Maybe they got lost in the merger. We all know how difficult it is to keep track of these minor bits of paper when bringing filing together! Come to think of it, maybe those advocating merged Police and Fire Services better keep an eye open for the contracts slipping down the back of the sofa!
However it gets worse! In 2001 Scottish Water told a Scottish Parliament Committee that three of the nine FBCs existed - the Scottish Government website still claims that two do! UNISON is rightly scandalised that a major quango misled Parliament in this way, and was/is so cavalier with your cash! 
But that is the way of PFI contracts. As we are now finding out, the chickens are beginning to settle in the roosting barns with a vengeance. As most if not all of these contracts contain clauses ‘ring-fencing’ the payments to the private contractors, when public sector cash contracts (as it currently is), the only payments guaranteed, are these to PFI contractors. So other essential services suffer increased cutbacks while PFI contracts don’t (if you get my drift).
Oh, and by the way, the contractors themselves are NOT covered by the Freedom of Information Act so, no point in asking them the kind of questions that opened up the ‘mystery of the missing FBCs’ to find out how (for example) contractors take decisions in delivering these services, or what staffing ratios they choose to use, or a million and one other pieces of information on what they do with your money. Indeed, water and sewerage in England - as it is fully privatised - isn’t covered by their FOI Act at all! 
Private contractors ARE covered (in both England and Scotland) to a limited extent through what are known as the Environmental Information Regulations. Indeed, Kevin Dunion specifically judged that these were the appropriate regulations to use in the UNISON case. But they only apply to environmental information. And in any case FOI is supposed to be straightforward, simple, open and transparent. Having two different standards does not help that aim. 
Isn’t it time that the Scottish Government dusted off their proposals to extend the FOI Act in Scotland to cover the myriad of outsourced, private, voluntary, partnerships, trusts and other bodies that are being invented to deliver your services with your money? Not only should they be dusted off (even the Westminster Tories are planning some extension to their Act) they should - to mix a metaphor - be beefed up! They have a majority now...

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