EXCLUSIVE SECRECY in how public money is spent on the building of infrastructure projects in Scotland must be ended, according to a leading economist, who wants to see wide-ranging changes to ensure accountability and transparency.
Margaret Cuthbert says the Scottish Government has signed contracts with the private sector “binding them from not releasing information” about them, and adds: “This secrecy continues to this day.”
In a new paper for Common Weal think tank, she argues there has been a “loss in public rights” from the approach the Scottish Government has pursued in procurement and the building of infrastructure.
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She says the collapse of school walls in Edinburgh “rightly” focussed public attention on the way Edinburgh Council had upgraded its schools through a public private partnership (PPP). The ensuing inquiry into the construction of the schools found procedures to be lacking.
But Cuthbert says construction is not the only public procurement issue that needs to be addressed.
“For many years, Scotland has had systems whereby our representative bodies, the Scottish Government and local authorities have been using financial instruments and contracts to procure public buildings and their long-term servicing and maintenance,” she says.
“The terms of the contracts are such that it is difficult, if not impossible, for the public sector to release the information in the contract to the public - who are, after all, the ones paying for the project and requiring its services.”
Freedom of Information (FoI) requests are “regularly rejected”, she claims and, with crucial information redacted, it makes it almost impossible for “the public to hold government and the contractor to account for performance and costs”.
Records are only opened to public view 15 years after they are produced – which is too late to do anything about them.
“There is nothing that can be done by the public if it is found 15 years after the event that a local authority, the prison service, the NHS or central government entered a contract which was overly costly and caused harm to various aspects of the local community,” says Cuthbert.
Cuthbert also believes that non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs), which have recently arisen in Scotland, should be subject to more rigorous parliamentary scrutiny, particularly in view of the increasingly large budgets they manage.
She cites Scottish Futures Trust (SFT), as a major example, which is registered as a private company and which she believes could be vulnerable to a “sell-off”.
Cuthbert says: “As SFT is a private company can its shareholders, who are currently the government, sell their shares to bodies outside Scotland? If so, is this in the interest of the Scottish public given that the SFT has become a major force in health, education, prisons, etcetera, and given that it is building up a large asset portfolio?”
Cuthbert also questions the lack of scrutiny over local businesses who win “very few public procurement contracts”, which means profits almost always leave Scotland. Her report makes a series of recommendations for reform to ensure scrutiny, accountability and transparency.
These include more highly qualified public sector staff with grounding in economics, statistics, and finance in the public sector at senior positions; an end to project bundling into very large programmes whose financing is difficult to follow; more openness in FoI to allow greater scrutiny and changes to be made; giving parliamentary committees more power to hold government to account; and the publication of “whole of government accounts”, to “bring to light the level of debt, currently out of sight, that is being incurred”.
Common Weal director Robin McAlpine said: “The Scottish public has been told we have something close to the optimal system for funding and building public infrastructure in Scotland. So it is surely a legitimate question to ask why so much effort is put in to hiding the information which would allow an independent assessment of whether this is true or not.
“Between willy-nilly use of commercial confidentiality clauses to hide the details of how public money is being spent, to the complex structures of private companies delivering a lot of the management of this work being exempt from Freedom of Information, the public will only learn the truth 15 years after the deals are done. If this is meant to generate public trust that public money is being used well and fairly, it’s a strange way to go about it.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are committed to openness and transparency and comply with relevant legislation and regulations in all of our processes.
“The Scottish Government is also participating in the Open Government Partnership’s Pioneer Programme, with the aim of helping people living in Scotland to better understand how government works so that they can have real influence on the issues which affect them.”