Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Truth...still a common casualty after 2,500 years

"In war, truth is the first casualty", wrote Aeschylus, the Greek tragic dramatist in about 500 BC as the Battle of Marathon raged around him. I wonder how often those words have been quoted since for they still ring true today.

However, Aeschylus could just as easily have altered the wording of his tenet to read: "In government, truth is the first casualty". For even in his day the rulers of Greece were masters of obfuscation who kept dangerous information well away from the populace.

These days it can be equally difficult to get at the truth. The Freedom of Information Scotland Act 2002 was supposed to herald a new dawn by forcing public bodies to release information on request. But there is no obligation on councils, Government departments and other organisations covered by the legislation to tell the truth, which renders the legislation somewhat useless.

It means that unless a request is couched in precise terms - it might even be advisable to get a specialist lawyer to draft your question - then the odds are you'll be fobbed off with a response which allows the authority to keep the real information under wraps. In other words, the organisation knows perfectly well which facts and figures you are after, but they'll do their best to ensure you don't get them courtesy of the Act's generous helping of wriggle room.

There was a classic example of the way the FOI system doesn't work in the public interest this week when Scottish Borders Council (SBC) belatedly updated its Freedom of Information archive for March, April and May by publishing the requests it had received and the responses given.

A questioner had asked the local authority how much it had spent on the Borders Railway project to date, and what budget figure had been allocated to the £300 million plan to restore a rail link between Edinburgh and Tweedbank.

Remember this is a so-called partnership project involving Transport Scotland, Edinburgh Council, Midlothian Council and SBC. Each partner is making a financial contribution towards the cost of the scheme. Surely taxpayers are entitled to know how much of their money will be splashed on the venture.

It must have come as a bit of a shock to the FOI requester to be told: "SBC has not spent any money on the Borders Railway. The project has to date been grant funded by Transport Scotland." And the second part of the question was met with an all too familiar form of words..."SBC does not hold this information and it is therefore exempt". A marvellously convenient get-out clause which is firmly embedded in the FOI Act.

I suspect the individual who submitted the request expected to be told, for example, that as far back as June 2004 the SBC Executive signed an undertaking binding the council to a commitment of £7.4 million over 30 years towards the capital cost of the railway at 2002 prices. The Borders share of this massive infrastructure investment will, no doubt, have risen to take account of inflation.

The council could also have told him/her that in December 2013 they agreed to spend a £1.25 million windfall on eleven projects, including the sum of £250,000 on Borders Railway Station Design.

And as recently as last month members of the council's Economic Development Group were informed that £190,000 had been found from within the council's Transformation Programme to pay for the appointment of two new officials to manage 'benefits realisation work' linked to the delivery of the railway.

In the words of the song performed by Sonata Arctica: "The Truth is out There". It's just damned difficult to find sometimes.

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