Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Councils must be transparent over PFI schemes

This worrying story highlights the problem of accountability when certain council functions are run by private companies. The same applies for hospitals and other public bodies of course.

The long-standing legal right of journalists to inspect local authority accounts for stories could be under threat following a Court of Appeal hearing.
Waste management company Veolia ES Nottinghamshire has been seeking to keep details of a multi-million pound PFI project in the county out of public scrutiny.

A High Court judge rejected its bid but the company appealed and the case was heard last week.

The judgment, expected shortly, could threaten journalists' right to write stories based on information gathered during the annual "four-week audit" period in which local authority accounts are open for public inspection.

Journalists have long been able to take advantage of the public audit provision, providing them with a potentially rich mine of stories.

But during the recent appeal hearing, counsel for Veolia argued that the purpose of opening the accounts for inspection was purely to enable members of the public to raise issues of concern with the district auditor - not to enable journalists to write stories.

The appeal court judges now have to decide whether the Audit Commission Act should be tightened up, to enable councils and consultants to keep 'confidential' contracts and invoices out of public view.

They will also rule on whether taxpayers and voters, including journalists, should be prohibited from disclosing any information inspected other than to the auditor - who will determine what information can be made public.

News agency boss and access to information campaigner Richard Orange, who has built an online database showing when accounts are available for inspection, said it was a potentially worrying development.

Orchard News proprietor Richard said: "If you find something that looks dodgy and the Court of Appeal says the only person you can talk to is the auditor, clearly that is going to impact on what journalists can do with that information."

Wrecsam Council has one PFI scheme - a 28-year contract with WRG on household waste. Although councillors are kept informed of the contract, we are not able to share that information with the general public because it's classed as Part B on the basis of it being commercially confidential.
I disagree - any public money going to a private company should be known to the people who pay that money, i.e. the taxpayer. There may be a case for commercial confidentiality when bids are put in and prior to a final contract being signed, but once that contract is in place why shouldn't people know how much we as taxpayers are paying out every year?
It's even more important that this kind of deal is properly scrutinised because council income is going to fall drastically in the coming years while we are still tied to this 28-year contract. As a result, other council services will be hit far harder.

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