Friday, 15 May 2015

Another door closes as cover up gains momentum

Crucial information relating to risks associated with the failed Galashiels waste treatment project cannot be disclosed because the reports and notes of meetings are held by a private firm of accountants appointed to carry out audits at Scottish Borders Council and other public authorities.

The latest setback in the continuing campaign to find out why SBC squandered £2.3 million of council taxpayers' money on legal advice and expensive consultants before abandoning their 24-year contract with New Earth Solutions follows a Freedom of Information request to Audit Scotland, the supposed public spending monitor.

The watchdog, which reports to the Accounts Commission, costs more than £7 million a year to run  and pays out over £5 million per annum to consultants who are hand picked to check the books of local authorities and other bodies funded by taxpayers.

Audit Scotland was handed a lengthy report last month which set out the circumstances surrounding the collapse of SBC's £65 million deal with NES and the failure to deliver a plant capable of diverting up to 80% of Borders refuse from landfill. The document was accompanied by a request for an investigation after the council blithely wrote off their losses without explanation.

But in response the watchdog merely indicated the correspondence it had received had been shared with the accountancy firm KPMG who are SBC's external auditors appointed and paid for by the Commission. KPMG received fees totalling more than £1.2 million for audits carried out over a recent 18 month period at a range of councils together with other amounts, details of which have been redacted (blanked out) on the agency's website. The grand total handed over to KPMG is also unavailable.

Audit Scotland explained that both it and KPMG were aware of "local interest and concerns" around SBC's waste management strategy which was holed below the waterline by the collapse of the NES contract. The project had been monitored and reported through SBC's risk register, and the auditor (KPMG) was present during a recent discussion of the risks associated with the scheme at the council's Audit & Risk Committee.

So it seemed reasonable to ask for copies of information contained in notes taken by the auditor in the course of those discussions via a Freedom of Information request to Audit Scotland. After all, SBC had already refused to divulge risk assessments made and precautions taken before they signed, then amended their disastrous contract with NES.

However, the response from the watchdog is disappointing to say the least. It reads: "KPMG is a private firm of accountants appointed by the Accounts Commission to undertake the council's audit. This means that nearly all the information about this audit is held by KPMG and not Audit Scotland.

"The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (FOISA) does not extend to private firms and therefore any information relating to your request would be held by KPMG and not Audit Scotland. FOISA does not require a Scottish public body to seek information from others to reply to a request."

How very convenient for all concerned. Audit Scotland does not even hold the information it pays private firms of accountants to collect. And FOISA is couched in terms which allows public bodies to cover each others' backs. So what is the point of keeping a very expensive watchdog?

The response continues: "I can only advise you to seek the information you have requested, regarding the discussion of the risks associated with the project at the council's Audit & Risk Committee, from Scottish Borders Council. If you feel you have not received a full reply from the council you could take your concern to the Scottish Information Commissioner."

Anyone fancy another trip on Scotland's finely crafted magic roundabout of obfuscation and cover-up? Probably not. The masters who operate the merry-go-round will only ensure you have a nightmare journey. But it certainly seems they all have something to hide.

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