SCOTTISH ministers, in attempting to defend their Anglian Water deal, give the impression that their hands were tied.

At the moment the billing and servicing of water for one hundred public sector organisations such as councils, hospitals, universities, prisons and the Scottish Parliament is carried out by Edinburgh-based Business Stream, which is one hundred per cent owned by Scottish Water, which itself is in public hands.

All of this work was put out to tender by ministers as one big contract and a decision should have been made in February. The delay caused uncertainty for Business Stream, its employees and contractors, and Scotland’s public sector.

In February my Green MSP colleague Alison Johnstone lodged a motion at Holyrood expressing alarm at the proposed deal and calling for water services to remain in public hands. Only 3 Labour MSPs signed that motion. Not one SNP MSP did.

The market for business customers in Scotland was originally opened up in 2008 due to competition legislation brought in by Tony Blair’s government, as well as EU and global treaties.

When Holyrood passed the Water Services Bill in 2005 the prevailing view (on which Labour and the SNP agreed) was that a limited form of competition for handling business customers was the least bad option available, and that it was better than the prospect of multinational corporations carving up the entire Scottish water industry. But this didn’t mean that the Scottish Government had no options open to it.

Rather than offering one massive contract, it could have been broken up into smaller lots. Indeed it is common for those public sector organisations who will soon be billed by Anglian to have to split up their own contracts.

Ministers have attempted to put a green gloss on this deal by claiming Anglian will help reduce water consumption. But that’s exactly what Business Stream was doing.

More than £100 million has been cut from the water bills of business and public sector organisations over recent years, thanks to water efficiency measures including automated water readers able to alert customers to leaks. Scottish Ministers have said little about Anglian’s track record, and the detriment to the public benefit if profits are syphoned off by a tax-dodging private company.

This is a company, bought by private equity firms and overseas pension funds, which has paid just £170m in corporation tax in 9 years. In the past year it paid no corporation tax at all yet handed its shareholders a £180million dividend.

Its highinterest loan arrangements, involving the Channel Islands stock exchange, have also underlined the opaqueness of its tax affairs.

Is this really the sort of firm we want our public sector doing business with?

In the past I have praised the Scottish Government for its willingness to push the boundaries of EU rules on issues such as minimum pricing of alcohol.

We need to see a similar determination when it comes to defending the value of public ownership in our economy. What could be more symbolic than Scotland’s water?

Scottish Government attacked for £360m deal with private water firm