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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To preserve the environment we hold in common, everyone has to play their part

The challenge of building a clean future based on the common good of Londoners demands that politicians, business, communities and individuals each take a share of the responsibility and of the benefits.

The environmental challenge facing our capital city can seem overwhelming. Our air is poisonous. Our infrastructure built for the fossil fuel era. The need to build a clean, low carbon future can seem incompatible with competing challenges such as protecting energy security, housing and jobs.

The way we tackle this challenge will say a lot about the type of city we are. We inherit the world we live in from the generations that went before us, and only hold it until it is time to hand it over to future generations. The type of environment we leave behind for our children and grandchildren will be affected by the decisions we need to take in the short term. Our shared inheritance must be shaped by all of us in London.

Londoners currently face some crucial decisions about the way we power our city. The majority of us don't want London to be run on dirty fuel, and instead hope to see a transition to a clean energy supply. Many want to see that clean energy sourced from within London itself. This is an appealing vision: there are upsides in terms of costs, security and, crucially, the environment.

Yet the debate about how London could achieve such a future has remained limited in its scope. Air pollution has rightly dominated the environmental debate in this year’s mayoral election, but there is a small and growing call for more renewable deployment in the city.

When it comes to cities, by far the most accessible, useable renewable energy is solar, given you can install it on some part of almost every roof. Rooftop solar gives power to the householder, the business user, the public servant - anyone with a roof over their head.  And London has upwards of one million roofs. Yet it also has the lowest deployment of solar of any UK city. London can do better. 

The new mayor should take this seriously. Their leadership will be vital to achieving the transition to clean energy. The commitments of the mayoral frontrunners should spur other parts of society to act too. Zac Goldsmith has committed to a tenfold increase in the use of solar by 2025, and Sadiq Khan has pledged to implement a solar strategy that will make the most of the city’s roofs, public buildings and land owned by Transport for London.

While the next mayor will already have access to some of the tools necessary to enact these pledges (such as the London Plan, the Greater London Assembly and TfL), Londoner’s must also play their part. We must realise that to tackle this issue at the scale and speed required the only way forward is an approach where everyone is contributing.

A transition to solar energy is in the best interests of citizens, householders, businesses and employees, who can begin to take greater control of their energy.  By working together, Londoners could follow the example of Zurich, and commit to be a 2,000 watt society by 2050. This commitment both maximizes the potential of solar and manages introduces schemes to effectively manage energy demand, ensuring the city can collectively face an uncertain future with confidence.

Unfortunately, national policy is no longer sufficient to incentivise solar deployment at the scale that London requires. There is therefore an important role for the incoming Mayor in facilitating and coordinating activity. Whether it is through TfL, existing community energy schemes, or through individuals, there is much the mayor can do to drive solar which will benefit every other city-dweller and make London a cleaner and healthier place to live.

For example the new mayor should work with residents and landlords of private and social housing to encourage the deployment of solar for those who don’t own their property. He should fill the gap left by national building standards by ensuring that solar deployment is maximized on new build housing and commercial space. He can work with the operator of the electricity grid in the capital to maximize the potential of solar and find innovative ways of integrating it into the city’s power demand.

To bring this all together London should follow the example set by Nottingham and Bristol and create it’s own energy company. As a non-profit company this could supply gas and electricity to Londoners at competitive prices but also start to drive the deployment of clean energy by providing an attractive market for the power that is generated in the city. Community schemes, businesses and householders would be able to sell their power at a price that really stacks up and Londoners would receive clean energy at competitive prices.

The challenge of building a clean future based on the common good of Londoners demands that politicians, business, communities and individuals each take a share of the responsibility and of the benefits. Lets hope the incoming Mayor sees it as their role to convene citizens around this aim, and create incentives to virtue that encourage the take up and deployment of solar, so that we have a healthy, clean and secure city to pass on to the next generation.