Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Veil of secrecy, but nothing to hide

EWAN LAMB reports

An initial attempt  to have confidential information released by Scottish Borders Council following the collapse of the £27 million waste treatment project at Galashiels has been stymied by the local authority on the grounds of "commercial confidentiality."

And according to SBC those secrecy clauses in the abandoned contract with New Earth Solutions will remain in place and continue to frustrate Freedom of Information requesters - and others anxious to get at the truth - for six years.

There have been numerous calls for an independent investigation after councillors at Newtown St Boswells agreed to write off £2 million they spent and squandered on the catastrophic project which should have delivered an integrated waste facility at Easter Langlee.

A number of people have called for the case to be referred to Audit Scotland, the public expenditure watchdog in the absence of any meaningful explanation from SBC as to why the 24-year contract with NES - valued at £65 million -  was hastily abandoned earlier this year.

In a bid to determine whether the council took adequate steps to carry out risk assessments and check on New Earth's technological credentials, a request for information was lodged with SBC at the beginning of March.

SBC was asked: "Can the local authority provide the following information now that the plans have been dropped.
1 – Information contained in risk assessments carried out by for, or on behalf of the council prior to the contract being awarded to New Earth Solutions (NES) Group Ltd.
2 – Apparently the scheme was dropped in view of “project-specific issues in terms of technology and funding.”  So what steps did the council take prior to April 2013 - when the decision was taken jointly to amend the proposals - to satisfy itself that NES possessed the technology and the funding to deliver the project? Please supply information contained in any documentation/emails relating to this aspect of the ground work."
According to the requester it took the council's FOI department more than a month to establish the information was exempt before issuing an answer which we quote in full here:
 "Further to your request for information under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 relating to the above I am now able to respond.
 The answers to your questions are detailed below:
1.            We have such risk assessments but under the terms of the contract with NES they are commercially confidential. (Exempt under section 33(1)(b) substantial prejudice to commercial interests)
2.            We have such documentation and emails that relate to steps taken prior to April 2013. However, under the terms of the contract with NES they are commercially confidential. (Exempt under section 33(1)(b) substantial prejudice to commercial interests)
 Please note that under the terms of the contract with NES the confidentiality clauses remain in place for six years following the end of the contract.

So unless that response can be challenged and overturned it appears a veil of secrecy will be drawn over the nuts and bolts of the financially catastrophic fiasco. This, despite assurances from senior councillors that the matter had been well handled, and in effect there was nothing to hide.

There has even been a confident prediction that the local authority's own external auditor will decide everything relating to the contract is in order in a report to be published later this year. There is therefore no need to refer the issue to Audit Scotland.

Hawick councillor Watson McAteer appears to have been a lone voice in calling for an investigation.
But when he did so council leader David Parker told the local press: “Councillor McAteer, who was present when the unanimous decision was taken in private on February 19, now believes it is appropriate to raise questions in public which suggests what happened warrants investigation.
“There is absolutely no reason to believe that the NES project was anything other than well managed throughout.Given that every decision was taken by council over the eight year life of this project and that the documents are all available, Councillor McAteer can conduct his own review if he wishes."

It might help to clarify matters for long suffering Borders council taxpayers if those documents did not remain firmly locked in the council's vaults.

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