Thursday, October 25, 2007

Privatisation blocks freedom of information says FOI Commissioner

The PFI deal on the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary comes in for criticism from the FOI Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, who berates the way privatisation obstructs and effectively removes the public's right to know.

The Herald reports :

Public must know, says FoI chief

ROBBIE DINWOODIE, Chief Scottish Political Correspondent

The information watchdog today launches a strong attack on the way privatisation removes the public's right to know.

Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, yesterday ordered NHS Lothian to release the full contract it signed with Consort Healthcare to build and operate the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

Today he goes further, claiming that the drift towards private finance in education and housing as well as health endangers the spirit of the Freedom of Information legislation.

He calls for a re-think of the law to ensure that the public's right to know "follows the money" when services are transferred into the private sector, although he confirms that genuine commercial confidentiality should be protected.

He will tell the annual Freedom of Information Conference in Edinburgh: "When council housing is transferred to a housing association or when a charitable trust is established to run local authority leisure and recreation services, local people and employees may find that they have lost freedom of information rights at a stroke, as these bodies are not regarded as public authorities."

Making clear that his judgment on the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary was not a one-off, but reflected a broader view about the hidden danger of privatisation, he makes clear his misgivings. "One of the key purposes of the freedom of information legislation was to allow authorities to be held to account publicly for their spending," he says.

"However, in recent investigations I have found that contracts to build schools and hospitals can run to thousands of pages, and that authorities are able to withhold these on the grounds of cost or attempt to argue that the whole contract is confidential."

Mr Dunion argues: "I think it is important that we review which bodies are covered by the freedom of information laws, and in addition take steps to ensure that information rights follow the money', where significant sums of public spending are concerned.

"Measures can be taken to ensure that the new trusts are publicly owned and there could be a requirement to publish PPP contracts subject to safeguarding genuinely confidential elements."

The office of the Scottish Information Commissioner points out that anomalies have arisen since the legislation came into force, and much of these relate to privatisation.

Edinburgh successfully withheld details of its PFI/PPP schools contracts on the basis that providing information would exceed the £600 cost threshhold, and NHS Lothian attempted to argue the same in the case of the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

As an example of good practice Glasgow ensured that its new arts, museums and sports subsidiary was constituted as a public company - and therefore within FoI legislation - but North Ayrshire did not do this.

Mr Dunion said of his judgment yesterday: "NHS Lothian sought to withhold all of these contracts with Consort Healthcare Consortium by claiming it was confidential." He said he asked the health board to justify this position several times but it failed to do so other than saying Consort did not want the information released.

"Eventually I decided that the whole contract should be released," Mr Dunion said. "This is a wake-up call to all of those entering into contracts to say that you simply can't assume that there is such a thing as confidentiality under the Freedom of Information Act. Information will be disclosed unless there is good reason not to disclose it."

Meanwhile, Lothians MSP Shirley-Anne Somerville yesterday welcomed Mr Dunion's ruling on Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. The SNP MSP said: "NHS Lothian must now adopt a more open and transparent way of working.

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