Friday, 22 May 2015

Boot sizes and pacemakers not commercially sensitive


A set of fascinating new revelations concerning a possible shortage of safety boots to fit the 18-strong Borders council delegation on a site visit to Bristol last October have escaped the information censor's black felt tip and are now in the public domain.

But unfortunately crucial information concerning the trip to the New Earth Solutions waste treatment facility at Avonmouth, including the presentation given to 12 elected councillors and six senior officials by NES executives has been classified "confidential and commercially sensitive".

So the latest attempt to find out whether the £3,939.35 spent on the visit achieved "due diligence" has been thwarted. The party from Scottish Borders Council were given a guided tour of the Avonmouth facilities on which the £27 million Easter Langlee treatment project was to be modelled.

SBC was invited to respond to a Freedom of Information request for details of the delegation's members, and why they were included in the group.The council was also asked about costs associated with the visit, a description of what took place on site, and information contained in documents generated as a result of the away day.

A key element of last October's meeting was a question and answer session with NES "so that councillors could get a detailed understanding of the delivery strategy, technology development, permit and funding".

But the FOI reveals - perhaps disturbingly - that "no information is held on record in respect of the questions or answers provided. Only the presentations are held, which are commercially confidential". Presumably the councillors retained all of the complex information given to them by NES experts in their heads without the need for note taking.

The FOI response adds: "By way of a briefing for members going on the visit a presentation was given to them by officers. As this contains commercially confidential information it cannot be released. redacted (censored) version of the presentation is attached.

"Subsequently project reports, minutes and emails make reference to the visit but were not generated specifically as a consequence of the visit. Again the contents of these documents contain commercially confidential information and cannot be released. Copies of the redacted correspondence is attached."

The four documents sent with the response have had up to 90% of the information completely blacked out, prompting one observer to say: "It looks as though SBC has slapped a D Notice on this affair. They're certainly not going to voluntarily release stuff which might point the finger at those responsible for the loss of £2.3 million of taxpayers' money.

"You had councillors of every political hue bar Labour on the trip so it might prove difficult to persuade anyone to act politically in the public interest. In the circumstances can the council be forced to make their secret documents available for scrutiny?"

One of the attachments contains copies of email exchanges between Matthew Webb, commercial manager at NES and Ewan Doyle, SBC's project manager. One of the messages is titled 'High Level Statement', but unfortunately the key messages have fallen victim to the ruthless redacter.

But a couple of email between the pair survive intact. Mr Webb asks: "Are you able to confirm numbers for the visit, and importantly boot sizes? We're concerned we're going to have to order some more boots if lots of the visitors have small feet."

A few days later Mr Webb writes: "We're intending to split the tour into three groups. We thought there would be two groups who do the full tour which will involve going up and down steps and walking along gantries above the ground.

"One group may not want to do the full tour, but can see virtually all of the plant at ground level. In this third group there should be anybody with a pacemaker as they need to stay away from the magnetic fields in the MBT (Mechanical Biological Treatment) sorting hall."

Wow! How did those contentious nuggets get past the censorship committee?

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