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Thursday, February 20, 2020

A failure of accountability and transparency

I think we are all used to government being opaque and unaccountable at every level, without exception, but there is a special category for PFI and outsourced services, simply because they are able to hid behind the cloak of commercial confidentiality.

As a result, huge sums of public money are being spent with minimal scrutiny and little chance of us being able to assess whether we are getting value for money, or whether those receiving and using the service are getting the high quality and responsive attention they deserve.

This has been highlighted by new research by the University of Leeds who, according to the Independent, have found that analysis of hundreds of requests to public authorities about privately funded projects under freedom of information laws did not lead to a full disclosure of information.

They say that nearly half gave no details at all – despite the information asked for being related to safety or as basic as the number of buildings involved in the Privately Funded Initiative (PFI) projects.

This is despite the fact that PFI projects are worth hundreds of billions of pounds, across public bodies including the government, local authorities, the NHS and police:

Co-author Dr Stuart Hodkinson, Associate Professor at the University of Leeds, said: “The profound difficulty in uncovering even the most basic information about PFI contracts shines a light on the current accountability vacuum for PFI schemes...Our findings show that currently the law is too weak to be effective and is being flagrantly ignored by public bodies.”

Outsourcing has been widely criticised since PFIs appeared in 1992, particularly in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the collapse of Carillion. In 2018 then chancellor Phillip Hammond announced new PFIs would be blocked, but there are still 715 existing PFI projects worth billions across 331 public authorities in the UK.

The investigation, published in Parliamentary Affairs, detailed 687 FOIs being sent between 2016 and 2017 to 315 public authorities with PFI contracts, including, governmental departments, NHS Trusts, councils, and local police and fire services.

There is an urgent need to update freedom of information laws to address this democratic deficit.
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