Monday, September 05, 2011

Time to extend the OIA

National has made no secret of its enthusiasm for greater privatisation, including greater use of public private partnerships (PPPs). But these arrangements come at a cost of a loss in transparency. Public services which were subject to the Official Information Act when done in house are suddenly secret when contracted out. This doesn't just mean that we don't know what's being done with our money; it also means we don't know whether we're getting a good deal or not.

The UK is further along the privatisation pathway than we are, and is already grappling with these problems. Faced with strong evidence that PPPs are poor value for money, and that PPP-providers are making windfall profits by effectively laundering government borrowing and shifting it off the books, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee - their equivalent of Finance and Expenditure - has hit upon a good solution: make privatised services subject to official information laws:

Transparency on the full costs and benefits of PFI projects to both the public and private sectors has been obscured by departments and investors hiding behind commercial confidentiality. The Treasury cited commercial sensitivities for not allowing freedom of information provisions to apply to the private sector. Once contracts have been let, commercial confidentiality should not restrict the ability of the public, Parliament and decision makers to access information. Freedom of information should be extended to private companies providing public services. The Treasury should define commercial confidentiality and the exceptional circumstances where it applies.
(Emphasis added)

If we're going to be using PPPs more often, then we need to do the same. Its public money, used for public services, so we have a right to know.

(The full report is here [PDF], and its other conclusions about windfall profits and better contracting are worth some attention too. But from National's POV, these windfall profits to their rich mates - and their own "blind" trusts - are exactly the point of the exercise. This is about looting the state for private gain, not about getting a better deal for the public).