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 Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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The Manchester attack will define this election: Broadcasters have a careful line to tread

It's right that the government should be given a chance to respond, but they must not be allowed to use it to campaign.

Every election campaign has its story, its place in the political history of this country. 2017 will forever be known for Manchester and the horror of the attack on Britain's young; and fighting terrorism will be a theme, overt or underlying, of what we see and hear between now and polling day.

The broadcasters have covered the events comprehensively yet sensitively. But they are aware that we're in an election campaign too; and when other news drives aside the carefully-balanced campaign formats, ministerial appearances give them a dilemma.

The fact is that what the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are doing in response to Manchester is newsworthy. It was Theresa May's duty to implement the recommendations of her security advisers on the elevation of the terror alert, and it would have been unthinkable for the news channels not to broadcast her various statements.

But it is also true that, if the bomb hadn't been detonated, Tuesday would have been a day in which the PM would have been under relentless damaging scrutiny for her u-turn on social care. All the opposition parties would have been in full cry across the airwaves. Yet in the tragic circumstances we found ourselves, nobody could argue that Downing Street appearances on the terror attack should prompt equal airtime for everyone from Labour to Plaid Cymru.

There are precedents for ministers needing to step out of their party roles during a campaign, and not be counted against the stopwatch balance of coverage. Irish terrorism was a factor in previous elections and the PM or Northern Ireland secretary were able to speak on behalf of the UK government. It applied to the foot and mouth epidemic that was occupying ministers' time in 2001. Prime ministers have gone to foreign meetings before, too. Mrs Thatcher went to an economic summit in photogenic Venice with her soulmate Ronald Reagan three days before the 1987 election, to the irritation of Neil Kinnock.

There are plenty of critics who will be vigilant about any quest for party advantage in the way that Theresa May and Amber Rudd now make their TV and radio appearances; and it’s inevitable that a party arguing that it offers strength and stability will not object to being judged against these criteria in extreme and distressing times.

So it's necessary for both broadcasters and politicians to be careful, and there are some fine judgements to be made. For instance, it was completely justifiable to interview Amber Rudd about the latest information from Manchester and her annoyance with American intelligence leaks. I was less comfortable with her being asked in the same interview about the Prevent strategy, and with her response that actions would follow "after June", which edges into party territory and would be a legitimate area to seek an opposition response.

When the campaigning resumes, these challenges become even greater. Deciding when the Prime Minister is speaking for the government and nation, or when she is leader of the Conservative Party, will never be black and white. But I would expect to see the broadcast bulletins trying to draw clearer lines about what is a political report and what is the latest from Manchester or from G7. They must also resist any efforts to time ministerial pronouncements with what's convenient for the party strategists' campaign grid.

There might also usefully be more effort to report straight what the parties are saying in the final days, with less spin and tactical analysis from the correspondents. The narrative of this election has been changed by tragedy, and the best response is to let the politicians and the public engage as directly as possible in deciding what direction the nation should now take.

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

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