Date: 28 July 2008
'Open' Scottish Government hides PFI information from public -
UNISON today accused the Scottish Government of hiding behind a
£600 figleaf, using a financial limit to prevent scrutiny of what
the public can know about expensive PFI/PPP projects.
UNISON's Scottish Communications officer Chris Bartter said "Ministers
claim to be committed to greater transparency, yet have refused
to provide UNISON with certain information withheld from PFI/PPP
documents because they claim it will cost more than £600."
Ministers have invoked Section 12(1) of the Freedom of Information
Scotland) Act 2002, which says that authorities are not obliged
to provide information if costs more than an amount prescribed by
Scottish Ministers - currently £600.
The Scottish Government could have provided the information and
either charged UNISON the extra cost - or provided it free. They
chose to do neither.
Where 12(1) applies, the Scottish Information Commissioner cannot
order a public authority to provide information. Therefore UNISON's
arguments against withholding information on grounds of commercial
sensitivity and commercial confidentiality were not examined. (eg.
note 1 on Decision 086/2008 below)
Chris Bartter said: "The Scottish Government admits PFI/PPP has
often made extreme and unwarranted profits, yet for the sake of
a few hundred pounds, it prevented the Commissioner considering
whether withheld information should be made public.
"We challenge the Government to live up to their pledges of greater
openness and publish all PFI/PPP business cases and contracts instead
of using this limit as an excuse not to disclose the information.
Freedom of Information legislation should also be extended to cover
private companies involved in PFI or future PFI-lite projects."
Examples of the redacted information which UNISON was seeking in
the application to the SIC include the following information from
the December 2004 contract for the £56m East Renfrewshire schools
PFI. (note 2) - The payment mechanism (which includes how to calculate
the monthly unitary charge), threshold equity IRR, refinancing provisions
and the helpdesk protocol.
Mr Bartter added: "The Scottish Government cited commercial confidentiality
for these deletions in East Renfrewshire. We argued that a prior
Commissioner's ruling in another case meant they could not rely
on this exemption.
"But by hiding behind the figleaf of a few hundred pounds, the
Scottish Government has prevented the Commissioner scrutinising
their reasons for withholding this information from the public.
"These projects involve billions of pounds of taxpayers' money
and we do not believe this is in the spirit of FOISA, nor of recent
comments by the Minister for Parliamentary Business (Bruce Crawford
MSP) claiming the Scottish Government leads by example and is moving
towards greater openness." (3)
UNISON also wants the £600 limit, set in 2004, to be reviewed.
The complexity and size of PFI/PPP documents, mean FOI requests
on them are very vulnerable to refusal on cost grounds, as UNISON
Notes to editors:
1. Decision Notice 'Decision 086/2008 UNISON and the Scottish Ministers'
is on the website of the Scottish Information Commissioner at: http://www.itspublicknowledge.info/ApplicationsandDecisions/Decisions/Decisions.php
The East Renfrewshire contract, with redactions marked xxx is on
the Scottish Government Financial Partnerships Unit FOI page at
3. Minister for Parliamentary Business Bruce Crawford's comments
on open government being good government: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2008/05/14150751
4. The SIC has called for the extension of the FOI Legislation
- including to cover private companies carrying out public contracts
and the Scottish Government is currently considering this.
5. At What Cost report on the aggregate costs of PFI/PPP projects
in Scotland: http://www.unison-scotland.org.uk/comms/atwhatcostoct07.pdf
For Further Information Please Contact: Chris Bartter (Communications
Officer) 0870 7777 006(w) 0771 558 3729(m) Fiona Montgomery (Information
Development Officer) 0141 342 2852(dir line)