The mystery services you pay for and aren't allowed to know about

There is a vast range of stuff involving taxpayers’ money that taxpayers aren’t actually allowed to know. Why?

Here is brief assortment of things you aren’t supposed to know. The terms under which Circle Healthcare was contracted to take over an NHS hospital in November 2011. The date by which the NuGen joint venture was due to construct a new nuclear power station at Sellafield. How much the Lord Mayor of Chester spends on leasing a chauffeur-driven Bentley.

This isn't an exhaustive list, you understand: these are just a few of the incidences in which that will-sapping phrase "commercial confidentiality" has popped up in the news over the last few months – put there, no doubt, by journalists steaming from the ears at their inability to get hold of actual facts and figures.

This dreaded phrase comes from the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which makes clear that, while the public has a perfect right to know about most of what the government does, there are certain areas in which the powers that be are within their rights to keep schtum: anything, in fact, deemed “prejudicial to the commercial interests” of somebody or other.

The result of all this is that there is a vast range of stuff involving taxpayers’ money that taxpayers aren’t actually allowed to know. Want to see the un-redacted contracts under which outsourcing firms are running public buildings? Or what targets they have to hit, to claim their rather expansive bonuses? Tough. None of your business. Bugger off.

If the private sector feels at all concerned about the impression this is leaving, it’s hiding it well. In early September, the main business lobbying organisation, the CBI, put out a report calling for greater transparency regarding how services were performing. This, it argued, would make it easier both to spread good practice, and to highlight when things were going wrong.

The reason for this sudden commitment to openness is simple: it drives trust. The more information we have about how good private firms are at offering public services, the CBI thinks, the more comfortable we’ll all get with the idea. The report doesn't quite come out and say it, but it seems to be aimed at things like the Staffordshire hospital scandal; its subtext can best be summarised as 'Game on'.

Not everyone’s going to agree with that, of course, but most people, at least, would probably say this commitment to openness is to the lobby group’s credit. There is, however, a gaping hole in its argument: it only talks about one side of the equation. The report includes an airy promise that “citizens are entitled to know how taxpayers’ money is spent”; but it mentions commercial confidentiality only once, and that’s to say how important it is that the rules allowing secrecy stays in place. As far as the business lobby is concerned, we’re allowed to see what’s coming out of public services; we’re not allowed to see what’s going into them.

If pushed on the matter, the CBI’s wonks point out that financial arrangements within the public sector tend towards the opaque, too. And they argue that publishing contracts would stifle innovation. Commercial confidentiality works like a patent: no one’s going to spend money coming up with a cleverer way of doing things if they think their rivals will instantly nick it.

But even if every closed contract is hiding a wealth of innovation, which is frankly hard to believe, isn't it in our interests that their rivals can see this and start copying it? If the risk of financial transparency is that everything gets cheaper, then I'm not convinced the downside is quite as big as the CBI thinks.

The real reason commercial confidentiality persists lies elsewhere. Outsourcing firms may not want any pesky members of the Public Accounts Committee trawling through their contracts – but neither does the government. There are no clear rules setting out what can be classed as confidential, or when it can be overruled by public interest. There is, what’s more, plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that specific financial information sometimes stays hidden at official request. If you were the guy who signed the PFI contract that included a £300 fee every time a light-bulb needed changing, you’d want it hushed up, too.

But there’s a sort of Prisoner’s Dilemma at work here. Both outsourcing firms and public authorities think it in their short term interest to keep everything quiet – but both might benefit from a touch of transparency. If there was a public interest rule that meant any contract involving public money would be subject to FOI, then the government would probably benefit by getting products and services cheaper. But companies could benefit too: partly because they could see what their rivals were up to, but mostly because everything the CBI says about the value of trust is entirely true.

Fairly or otherwise, a lot of people remain convinced that outsourcing companies are all evil profiteers, growing rich off the backs of children or sick people. Some of them aren’t. Some genuinely believe they can provide better public services at lower cost. Were they to be more willing to prove it, we might start to believe them.

Want to know how much the Lord Mayor of Chester spends on a chauffeur-driven Bentley? Sorry. Image: Getty

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
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Boris Johnson is out of control, but Theresa May is too weak to punish him

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less.

Only younger Tory MPs asked last weekend: “Why did Boris do it?” Why did he write a 4,000-word essay on his demands for Brexit, just six days before Theresa May would make a definitive speech on the government’s plans? The older ones knew why: he hadn’t been the centre of attention for a while and wanted to remind people of his existence and that he remained in the game. A charitable fringe of pro-Brexit MPs thought he did it because he is a sincere Leaver, motivated by a desire to ensure the democratically expressed will of the British people is discharged. However, theirs was not a view widely shared.

Others thought they could trace the motivation for Johnson’s intervention back to the events of June 2016. “The reputation of Vote Leave at the moment is a pile of shit,” one told me, referring to the campaign whose figurehead Johnson had been. The metaphor became even more pungent: “Going back to the £350m is like a dog returning to his vomit.” The figure, plastered on Vote Leave’s battle bus, was the amount Johnson and his friends claimed would be available post-Brexit to spend weekly on the NHS. It was quickly rubbished, with Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign dismissing it outright. It was a gross, not a net, figure; it included the EU rebate, which ceases to exist when our contributions stop. David Norgrove, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has repudiated the assertion; and there are many other institutions, such as our tertiary education sector, that will lose EU money and expect the government to make it up. That Johnson should mention this fantasy figure in his article has bemused even some of that dwindling band of MPs who still see him as a possible future leader.

Although the piece was in Johnson’s familiar idiom, others detected in it the influence of Vote Leave’s former director, Dominic Cummings. Further evidence came in a bout of aggressive tweeting from Cummings after the pack turned on Johnson. An MP who worked with Vote Leave told me, “Cummings has returned. He is a narcissist. If he can’t get his own way, then he prefers to destroy: that was how he operated all through the campaign.”

Cummings, a former aide to Michael Gove, is like Johnson a publicity addict: both thirst to see their names in the media. He disappeared from view after Gove’s failed leadership bid, when Gove had to promise supporters that Cummings would not work in Downing Street if he won, so toxic was Cummings’s reputation after Vote Leave. Gove was quoted as supporting Johnson’s “vision”, a further sign of Cummings’s involvement. Within 24 hours, Gove’s friends denied that he supported any such thing but then, as Cummings went into action, Gove confirmed his backing for Johnson.

Johnson’s intervention did not grate with everybody. Some Brexiteer Tories, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, felt that after a party debate dominated by ministers favouring a Brexit that looks like continued membership of the EU by other means – notably Philip Hammond – it was time the Foreign Secretary spoke out for something representing a cleaner break. Some also felt that, given his office, he had a right to have a public say on the matter, after months in which May had done her best to ignore him.

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less, and suggestions he might resign are unlikely to concern her unduly. His remarks were not against party policy, but MPs trusted by Downing Street were at pains to stress that his views would have no effect on the content of the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, for there had “never been any chance of Theresa going off-piste”.

Johnson’s intervention was, however, unhelpful to him and to May. Colleagues saw it as the consequence of his having spent the summer steaming with frustration because he had lost ownership of the Brexit issue. He has also, according to friends, developed a thinner skin of late, and feels wounded by frequent attacks on him in the media pointing out his disengagement, his laziness, his ambition and his generally poor impression of a foreign secretary. For so long the goût du choix of many younger colleagues, he now finds they take him no more seriously than most of his older ones do. He once took for granted that in a leadership contest MPs would choose him as one of the two candidates for a plebiscite of the membership; now few think that likely.

Too many colleagues have taken the Telegraph article as further proof of his inability to be a team player, and of his unfitness for higher office – which was why Gove dropped him last year. Referring to Johnson’s time as mayor of London, a colleague says: “He was a good chairman, when he had seven or eight deputy mayors. But he can’t do what a minister is supposed to do, which is to grasp a policy and deliver it.” Another highlights his skewed sense of priorities and the lack of a deft political touch. “Isn’t it astonishing that just as he should be sorting out all consular and diplomatic help for our people in the West Indies after the hurricane, he finds time to write a 4,000-word newspaper article? As usual, it’s not about what’s good for the country. It’s what he thinks is good for him.”

Yet, as Ken Clarke swiftly pointed out, Boris Johnson has shown that however much he annoys May, she is too damaged and vulnerable to sack him. When Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, started mocking him as a “back-seat driver”, May was seen to be presiding over a cabinet whose most senior members were squabbling. Johnson’s self-indulgence also meant that the expectation surrounding May’s Florence speech, already considerable as she struggled to rebuild her credibility and that of her Brexit policy, became even harder to satisfy. 

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left