Saturday, 29 April 2017

Veil of secrecy ripped apart

DOUG COLLIE on a 'breakthrough' ruling by Scotland's Information Commissioner

Attempts by Scottish Borders Council to hide behind their own wall of silence for six years after a £80 million waste management contract went disastrously wrong have been scuppered by Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew.

The bungling local authority, forced to abandon plans for a garbage disposal facility near Galashiels after squandering £2.4 million of taxpayers' money, has repeatedly withheld information linked to their contract with New Earth Solutions Group [NESG] on grounds of commercial confidentiality.

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests were refused amid claims by SBC that to divulge material they had considered in secret would be damaging to NESG's business and could benefit their competitors. The council even stuck to that line after NESG crashed into administration in 2016 with debts of over £50 million.

The limited information released by SBC officials and councillors who sit on a so-called FOI review group was consistently redacted with generous helpings of black ink used to obscure sensitive or embarrassing sections of the documents. It rendered the published material worthless and meaningless.

According to senior council staff the confidentiality clauses associated with the 24-year deal signed in 2011 would remain in place for at least six years after the contract ceased to exist in February 2015.

But following a nine month investigation by the Scottish Information Commissioner's (SIC) staff, the Borders local authority has been told their reasoning for confidentiality simply will not wash. The council has been instructed to provide unedited copies of the censored reports by June 12th.

Ms  Agnew concludes in a 17-page decision notice just issued: "The Commissioner notes again that much of the information withheld from the five reports relates not to NESG and its technological or financial assets, but to the council's own financial or administrative matters".

A Freedom of Information campaigner who has studied Ms Agnew's report, told us: "There is now strong evidence that SBC  mounted a smokescreen to cover for its mismanagement of its dealings with New Earth Solutions Group and their funding partners (New Earth Recycling & Renewables Fund) who were supposed to come up with £23 million to build the treatment plant for the Borders.

"Perhaps publication of the censored stuff will provide an indication of who was responsible for an extremely costly four-year saga which ended in failure. Having followed this story since the contract was abandoned I am amazed there has been no investigation into what went wrong. At least Ms Agnew and her staff have 'done their bit'".

The SIC decision states: "The Commissioner finds that Scottish Borders Council failed to comply with the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (the EIRs) in responding to the information request.

"The Commissioner found that the council failed to comply with regulation 5 (1) of the EIRs, by failing to make available information which it later disclosed during the investigation; was not entitled to withhold information under regulation 10 (5) (e) of the EIRs; failed to comply with regulation 13 (b) and (c) of the EIRs, by failing to provide an explanation of its decision to rely on regulation 10 (5) (e) when refusing the request".


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