This blog is mainly about the governance and future of policing and crime services. (Police & Crime Commissioners feature quite a lot.) But there are also posts about the wider justice system. And because I am town councillor and political activist, local & national issues are covered a little, as well.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Calling PCC candidates: are you for transparency & accountability or not?

Let me begin with this quote from the 'About us' page of the TPA website:

The TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) was launched by Matthew Elliott and Andrew Allum in early 2004 to speak for ordinary taxpayers fed up with government waste, increasing taxation, and a lack of transparency in all levels of government. [with my added emphasis].

Increasingly more and more public money is being spent under contract by commercial organisations. And so you would think that the TPA would back calls for all organisations who spend the 'Queen's Shilling' to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)? Perhaps that you would not be surprised to learn that (to my knowledge) they have conspicuously avoided any such support. I have emailed / messaged / tweeted them many times - with nil response.

Funny that... I would love to see the logic whereby they can maintain this position. (Please comment below if you wish, TPA...)

But what worries me far more is how our public services appear to be blocking the transparency & scrutiny that should come with the FOIA by citing 'commercial confidentiality' as the reason, more and more. Whether this is just laziness, a desire not to upset their commercial partners, a misunderstanding of the law, protecting their own lack of commercial 'nous' in agreeing good value contracts or indeed a legitimate application of the Act is often not clear (because it is being blocked..)

This morning on BBC Radio 4 toady programme (listen again here - 1 hr 23 minutes in) Tom Greatorex MP talked about the controversial contract the Department for Work and Pensions has with ATOS. He explained that he had to resort to the National Audit Office to gain an answer to his investigations as to whether this contract was value for money or not (aside from the devastating impact it is having on many individuals subjected to ATOS benefits assessment process - see here for a small insight). He queried whether the number of successful appeals (and the cost to establish these results) was outweighing any savings the commercial contract was meant to achieve. He asked DWP for an answer initially but was blocked by the 'commercial in confidence' argument.

I have experienced this as you know from my search for the risk register that Lincolnshire Police has about their work with G4S. (See below here.) I have now been effectively blocked by Thames Valley Police on similar grounds.

Back in the middle of June I asked what I thought was a simple and historical question:

Please could you let me know how much Thames Valley Police spent on contractors who performed policing or policing allied roles (ie not ancillary roles such as cleaning or engineering functions) in the year ending March 2012. 

They replied:

Thames Valley Police is currently undergoing a competitive tender process with relation to this information and therefore engages Section 43(2): Commercial Interests to this part of your application. We consider that disclosure may prejudice or undermine the procedure of engaging a supplier at this time as the competing suppliers are submitting their tenders for this area of business. Although Thames Valley Police acknowledges that disclosure would increase transparency, it considers that disclosure of information which could undermine an ongoing process and adversely affect our ability to attract competitive suppliers in the future would overall not be in the public interest. We therefore have engaged this exemption at this time. [my added emphases]

I then asked, by when would they be able to release the information. They replied:

Thames Valley Police expects the tender process for this contract to be concluded in January 2013. 

And so the upshot of this is that all the way through the campaign to elect the new PCC for Thames Valley a crucial piece of information will not be available for public debate. Frankly I fail to see how the overall spend in one past year with all suppliers could be damaging to a current tender process with (I assume) only one part of this spend. (Unless TVP are outsourcing all of their current spend to just one supplier... which I hope not as this would be bad business and highly risky in my opinion.)

I am considering whether to appeal this decision or not. (What do you think?)

But, one thing is clear to me: if we are to have robust scrutiny of public spending then the 'commercial in confidence' argument must not be used so liberally in the future. This might require a change in the law or it might not.

As the new role of the police and crime commissioners is all about public accountability and transparency, I assume that all PCC candidates will back my small campaign to have the FOIA applied to all organisations that spend public money including those under contract (perhaps with a de minimus level to allow micro organisations to be exceptions).

PCC candidates can register their support below... thanks.

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