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Date: 28 July 2008

'Open' Scottish Government hides PFI information from public - UNISON

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 has discovered.


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

2. The East Renfrewshire contract, with redactions marked xxx is on the Scottish Government Financial Partnerships Unit FOI page at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/923/0050878.pdf

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)