Sunday, 8 May 2016

Public outrage after Commissioner's verdict


Scottish Borders Council has been hit by a new wave of criticism after Scotland's information commissioner Rosemary Agnew's latest decision notice in the New Earth Solutions affair.

The angry reaction from members of the public in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom has been flooding in to the Not Just Sheep & Rugby office after we published details of Ms Agnew's 'judgement' in a disputed Freedom of Information case.

The strongest comments are aimed at the council for failing to maintain comprehensive written records so that members and officers can be held accountable for the loss of £2.4 million of public money following the shambolic collapse of the local authority's 24-year contract with so-called waste management specialists NES.

Ms. Agnew wrote: "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".

During the investigation SBC also flooded the Commissioner's office with 500 separate reports which, they claimed, were relevant to the FOI request. But Ms Agnew concluded none of the documents were linked to the question which concerned the decision making processes surrounding the scrapping of the NES contract in February 2015.

A waste industry expert commented: "Obviously they [SBC] tried to avoid the requirement to disclose information by overwhelming Ms Agnew with irrelevant documentation. Moreover, it is very poor practice if proper records and minutes were not kept to make such a big decision.

"Perhaps the council does not have money pressures and therefore can afford the luxury of wasting £2.4 million of taxpayers' money. Had they delivered the project then the Borders would have been diverting 80% of the region's waste from landfill by now. It would be interesting to see what the variation report contained as I assume such a variation would have required the agreement of elected members."

Meanwhile a retired solicitor got in touch to say: "What is interesting is the extent to which the information commissioner is prepared to criticise the governance. Surely this should be enough to make the Audit Commission look again at the situation. Equally, given the amount of money involved the external auditors should have this drawn to their attention".

Unfortunately Audit Scotland has already made it clear on several occasions that it has no interest in investigating the loss of public cash in this instance despite allegations of bungling incompetence by SBC. After all they selected a form of technology which did not work and a funder who could not come up with the £21 million needed to build the waste plant at Easter Langlee.

A leading campaigner against the incineration of waste who has studied Ms Agnew's decision notice said: "There seems to be a pattern here with respect to the council's reluctance to seek clarification that could have narrowed the scope of the various FOI requests linked to this contract.

"Does SBC plan to revise its FOI procedures in light of the criticism of their repeated failure to work with requesters to simplify matters? And do they intend changing their systems following criticism of their reliance on unrecorded informal briefings on matters of importance?"

A brief comment from one Borders taxpayer simply said: "There will and should be extreme discomfort at SBC HQ. Heads should roll".

This disastrous saga, and the reluctance of SBC to give the public the full facts relating to what went wrong and why appears to be set to continue into the period leading up to the 2017 Scottish local government elections next May. That is when those elected members involved in the debacle, and who decide to stand for re-election may have to answer some very awkward questions.

Not Just Sheep & Rugby will continue to publish articles about the catastrophic £65 million deal between SBC and NES which went so horribly wrong. Please feel free to post a comment. And anyone who can shed light on the mystery should make sure their information gets into the public domain.

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