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 is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad