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ERI information ruling shows PFI is bad news for public knowledge

by Tom Waterson, Chair of UNISON Lothian Health Branch, and Chair of the union's Scottish Health Group

The welcome decision by Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC), to order NHS Lothian to release the whole of the PFI contract for Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary (ERI), to May Docherty, one of UNISON's stewards is a highly significant one, both for the ERI itself, and for the future of similar contracts elsewhere in Scotland.

It also highlights what happens to information about our services when the private sector gets its hands on them, and - as the SIC himself says - outlines the need at least, for contractors and others to be covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

The health board's excuse for not revealing any contract details, was simply that the contractor - Consort Healthcare - wouldn't allow them to, and had included a clause in the contract to that effect.

The scathing findings of the SIC- that the health board had made no arguments why the contract (or parts of it) should remain secret - were in line with the Government's own advice that public authorities should not sign contracts with such clauses in them.

Despite this, in a recent round of similar FOI requests, UNISON came across a number of other authorities who also used this clause as a reason not to release contractual information. They are also being appealed. But clearly many private contractors - such as Consort - do not want the public to know what their contracts cost.

UNISON has long suspected this, and indeed we think that there may well be other financial implications in the ERI, which are yet to be revealed.

Hopefully, this ruling will be the first step to close this 'catch-all, get-out clause' for contractors. Another worrying point, is that NHS Lothian was unaware that the contract it had identified as relating to this substantial PFI project omitted over 5,000 pages of relevant information. That's about two thirds of the contract!

Again, UNISON's own enquiries show that this is not an isolated incident, contractual information seems to have an annoying habit of going missing.

In the most extreme example, neither Scottish Water, nor the Scottish Government, can find the Final Business Cases (the details of the costs and delivery) for NINE water PFI contracts - including that for Seafield where millions of tons of untreated sewage was pumped directly into the Forth earlier this year! So simply to rely on this ruling - important though it is - will not resolve the problems of secrecy and lack of information when public services are delivered by non-public organisations.

Other clauses in the legislation can and do allow 'commercially confidential' information to be withheld. Apart from contractors and other private sector providers, organisations such as housing associations, and leisure trusts are commonly not covered by FOI legislation - leading to ridiculous anomalies where the tenants of Glasgow and the leisure users of North Ayrshire cannot use FoI, whereas in neighbouring councils where services are provided in-house, the public can access information.

The SIC is right to call for such bodies to be covered. Worryingly, our new Government appears not to be listening, yet the UK Government is consulting on extending FOI down south to private companies delivering public contracts.

UNISON has always said, that the bottom line is that public services - whether Edinburgh's hospital, or Glasgow's housing, or Scotland's water - should be provided by the public sector, so they are publicly accountable for our money that they spend. Where that is not happening, at least these non-public bodies should be made to tell us where our money is going, and what services they are providing for it!

See http://news.scotsman.com/opinion.cfm?id=1743682007