Tuesday, 5 April 2016

From nought to 3,000 in no time at all!


A Freedom of Information request to Scottish Borders Council produced no fewer than 3,000 separate documents linked to the requester's simple query about the authority's disastrous dalliance with waste management 'specialists' New Earth Solutions[NES].

Because of the sheer volume of paperwork, SBC claimed the request - seeking information about risk assessments carried out before the £65 million contract was awarded to NES and prior to a radical change in the deal in 2012 - was 'manifestly unreasonable'.

The veritable mountain of confidential information which SBC has linked to the request contrasts sharply with a recent case involving another aspect of the many facetted catastrophe in which the council maintained nothing had been written down during and after a visit by councillors and officials to inspect the misfiring NES plant near Bristol. This was the facility on which a waste disposal solution for the Borders was to be based.

In a submission to the Scottish Information Commissioner [SIC], council officers provided copies of the 3,000 documents and emphasized the sheer scale of the work required to copy, collate and redact the information so that it could be provided to the FOI requester.

A written decision notice from Commissioner Rosemary Agnew states: "The Council argued that the cost of complying with the request, in terms of officers' time being diverted from its core functions, would be significantly disproportionate".

And yet SBC presumably found the time to pore over the 3,000 separate reports which were eventually sent to the SIC's investigators. So did that process interfere with core functions?

The report continues: "The Commissioner acknowledges that the requester is only seeking information that encapsulates the steps taken by the Council to manage risk or demonstrate that the Council was aware of the risks associated with the NES waste management project, and that he believes this should be available in a few key documents".

In fact the requester had been told by a procurement expert that there should only be between five and ten financial reports and perhaps between three and eight technology reports.

Either before or after the ill-fated "due diligence" trip to Bristol it emerged that NES and its funders could not finance the proposed incinerator at Galashiels while the brand of technology selected for the venture was not fit for purpose.

The council's reluctance or refusal to make risk assessments public leads to the conclusion that elected members agreed to take a series of huge risks prior to the loss of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money when the scheme collapsed in chaos in February 2015.

To date SBC has refused to release a single page of documentation of any significance which would explain the financial debacle to those who are footing the bill. The council continues to rely on its catch-all confidentiality clause with NES which is set to run until 2021.

The Commissioner concludes: "On balance, while there are strong public interest arguments in favour of disclosure of the information covered by the request, the Commissioner accepts, that in the circumstances of this case, these are outweighed by the public interest in preventing the disproportionate levels of disruption to the Council's functions that would result if the necessary staff resources were diverted to provide all the information requested."

However, Ms. Agnew does require the council to provide the requester with advice and assistance to help him narrow the scope of his request. Unfortunately members of the public are unaware of the information held by public authorities and so are placed at a considerable disadvantage.

In a very short space of time SBC has deployed two entirely different strategies in a bid to escape scrutiny, first by claiming briefings concerning the Bristol jaunt were all conducted verbally, and then by subjecting the SIC to a blizzard of paperwork under the heading 'Risk Assessments'. Neither  strategy should be allowed to prevail.

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