ERI information ruling shows PFI is bad news for
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
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!