Monday, 3 July 2017

Who do they think they're kidding?


A policy document produced barely a year ago by Scottish Borders Council declared that informed openness was at the heart of the local authority's approach to information management.

The April 2016 production entitled Information Governance Policy also claimed that SBC was committed to creating, managing and keeping records that document its principal activities.

One of the exceptions to those rules appears to have been any or all of the information linked to the Easter Langlee waste management farce starring SBC, its contractor New Earth Solution Group and a collection of private consultants who scooped up hundreds of thousands of pounds in fees in a four-year drama which cost taxpayers dear. At least £2.4 million, in fact with no punch line at the end of the comedy of errors.

Virtually any shred of evidence in council files which might hint at incompetence or simply bad governance has been either completely concealed from public view or has been so heavily censored with black ink to render the information unreadable and unfathomable.

Since the policy document was published its contents have been shown to be worth little or nothing so far as this issue is concerned.

Time after time 'informed openness' has been concealed by a wall of silence to thwart any Freedom of Information request aimed at finding anything out about the New Earth fiasco.

FOI requests have also shown that far from writing things down in a diligent manner, the council has admitted on more than one occasion that written records were not kept when asked about a particular aspect of the saga.

The most notable of these failures to minute proceedings may have concerned the fact finding mission by a large delegation of officials and councillors of every political hue to NESG headquarters near Bristol in October 2014. Apparently no written records were kept and no reports were produced after the party returned from their two-day jaunt to the south-west of England at taxpayers' expense.

It later transpired the Borders expeditionary force had gone to the wrong waste treatment facility. The Avonmouth plant was completely different from the one planned at Galashiels and they should have visited a research and development establishment at Canford, Dorset instead.

Anyone interested in getting at the truth in the SBC/NESG affair will have taken heart from the two recent decisions by different Scottish Information Commissioners who both dismissed the council's refusal to divulge reports and other documents and ordered the authority to comply with requests.

These were both humiliating defeats in the theatre of FOI, and a victory for persistence and doggedness. Unfortunately, as this publication has said on a number of previous occasions, those who are supposed to keep watch over local government spending do not regard the loss of £2.4 million as a significant issue worthy of investigation.

But at least Commissioner Agnew and Commissioner Keyse have done their best to lift the smokescreen which descended at council HQ the day the ill-fated contract had to be shredded.

As Ms Keyse says in her decision notice issued last week: "The Council has not explained why information relating to its own matters is still sensitive, or why this information is excepted from disclosure".

It is hard to fathom some of the reasons for secrecy promoted by SBC during investigations by the SIC.

For example: "The Council considered that the withheld information was industrial as it contained details about the technology processes proposed by NESG, the level of technological testing and proving which had taken place, and the extent to which technological solutions had not yet been achieved.

"The Council stated that information which details the project, and where it has failed, and why it should not be pursued, is information of high commercial sensitivity".

This was SBC's stance despite the previous financial collapse into administration of NESG and the liquidation and total insolvency of its funding partners.

To finish: a couple of extracts from that discredited Information Governance Policy.

[1] "Through our commitment to sharing information, SBC intends not only to fulfil any legal obligations, but also to promote a spirit of openness and accessibility. SBC will fulfil its legal obligations with effective and timely responses that protect individuals' rights while promoting a spirit of openness and accessibility in our responses through a commitment to share information".

[2] "Non-compliance with this Information Governance policy could have a significant effect on the efficient operation of the council and may result in financial loss, reputational damage and an inability to provide necessary services to our customers".

We will leave our readers to decide whether - in this particular case - those lofty sentiments are worth the paper they are written on.

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