Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Council savaged over 'questionable' record keeping

DOUG COLLIE on a devastating decision notice from Scotland's information commissioner

The tendency of Scottish Borders Council to conduct its business through verbal briefings rather than written records has landed the authority in hot water with the Scottish Information Commissioner [SIC] who says the practice "appears questionable at least, in terms of accountability and transparency".

Commissioner Rosemary Agnew has also fired a broadside at SBC for making her office commit considerable resources in printing, collating and reading 500 documents which bore no relevance to the case her staff were investigating on behalf of a Freedom of Information requester.

This fourth decision notice linked to the council's disastrous waste management contract with New Earth Solutions, which cost taxpayers at least £2.4 million, cannot be considered anything other than a damning indictment of the local authority. It has been ordered to release yet more information which it has tried desperately to conceal to avoid embarrassment and further allegations of incompetence.

On this occasion SBC was asked for copies of information concerning the decision by elected members in February 2015 to scrap the £65 million waste treatment deal with NES after the company and council were unable to overcome funding and technological issues.

But the council failed to respond to the request within the time allowed by FOI law, and following a review the requested information was withheld on grounds of commercial confidentiality. It is not the first time SBC has trotted out this reason for keeping potentially damaging information about their dalliance with NES firmly under wraps.

Ms Agnew's investigation report appears to show how the council provided her with over 500 documents in a failed bid to cloud the issue. SBC claimed all of this paperwork would fall within the scope of the information request, but after reviewing each of these documents the SIC found none of them were relevant.

When the Commissioner pointed out that none of the reports provided appeared to have been presented to council committees for consideration, SBC confirmed that was indeed the case. All of the correspondence was between members of the council's project team, their external advisors and NES itself.

The decision report slams the council by declaring: "If [the requester] had been given the opportunity to clarify or discuss his request, the Council might have avoided spending significant time and effort in collating the large volume of information it considered relevant to the request.

"Additionally, it would have prevented the Commissioner from having to commit considerable resources in printing, collating and reading information which was not relevant to the request."

In a side swipe at SBC's dubious record keeping, Ms Agnew points out her remit is limited to considering the information actually held by an authority. But the decision notice adds: "However, she is surprised that the Council failed to record any details of these meetings and briefings on the NES project, given the significant expenditure which the Council was committing to this project, and the onus and expectation on Scottish public authorities to be transparent and accountable".

The strong criticism does not end there. The report states: "The Commissioner notes that the termination of this contract led the Council to 'write off' some two million pounds worth of public funds; in the circumstances the Council's decision to rely on informal briefings generating no recorded information during the lifetime of the project appears questionable at least, in terms of accountability and transparency".

The investigation has also made it clear that SBC was - yet again - determined not to release any information voluntarily. Its representatives warned the SIC that disclosure of the withheld information would substantially harm the legitimate financial interests of NES.

SBC argued the information contained details about the technology which NES was developing as well as its financial arrangements and this information was commercially sensitive.

But as these columns have already revealed, the technology chosen by Borders councillors was untried and useless and the method chosen by elected members to fund a proposed £21 million waste treatment centre at Easter Langlee was incapable of delivering the project.

Fortunately Ms Agnew concludes: "Some of the withheld information does not contain sensitive details of NES's finances or technology. Instead, it concerns the decision-making processes of the Council in relation to this matter, and shows how the Council reached the decision to terminate its contract with NES.

"The Commissioner does not consider that disclosure of this type of information would cause the harm that the Council has claimed, as it is not information which would enable a competitor of NES to gain any real commercial advantage".

And yet SBC maintained there was a greater public interest in withholding all of the information than disclosing it even though it had nothing to do with New Earth Solutions. Readers can only speculate as to why the bungling local authority wished to keep the documentation plastered with thick black ink to prevent it from being read..

Commissioner Ms Agnew requires the Council to disclose information that was wrongly withheld by June 17th.

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