Skye Bridge: a scandal of secrecy

Guardian columnist and activist George Monbiot used his column in yesterday’s paper to draw attention to the cost of secrecy in relation to Scotland’s Skye Bridge. The cost of building the bridge went from £25m to £93m and the public authority has refused to disclose its contract to the very people who paid for it, namely the taxpaying public.

Last week the people of Skye won their nine-year battle to remove the tolls on the bridge to the mainland. The bridge was Britain’s first privately financed public project. Monbiot asks whether the new Freedom of Information Act will be strong enough to get these contracts released into the public domain:

A scandal of secrecy and profligacy
The Skye bridge contract allowed private firms to fleece the taxpayer
Tuesday December 28, 2004
The Guardian

So what was in the contract? I have no idea, and nor does anyone who was not involved in negotiating it. Though it was giving away our money, though there was no possible security argument for keeping it secret, both the Tory and Labour governments have hidden the contract behind the excuse of “commercial confidentiality”. Unless an inventive challenge can be launched, governments will continue to do so, using the loophole in the act. The lesson of the Skye bridge fiasco is obvious. If we are not allowed to see what’s being done in our name, there’s a pretty good chance we are being ripped off.
Full article here, or at www.monbiot.com

The only thing I would add to this piece is that the exemptions likely to be used by public authorities to withhold these types of contracts require a public interest test. Both section 43 for commercial interests and section 42 for legal professional privilege are qualified exemptions, meaning information can only be withheld if an authority can prove that disclosure is not in the public interest.

There is also an absolute exemption for breach of confidence (section 41). However, within the law of confidence there is an in-built public interest test. Judges have not always viewed the public’s right to know as important enough to override confidentiality claims but this is starting to change.

The Information Commissioner has publicly stated that PFI contracts should be made public as a matter of course. It is doubtful that public authorities will proactively do this, but with sustained public pressure and demand we should start seeing more contracts made public. The publication of the Tube contracts shows that refusals can be successfully challenged. More info on my Tube campaign is here.

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