MoD procurement might escape taxpayer FoI scrutiny
23 July 2012
By Matthew D'Arcy
Plans to privatise a Ministry of Defence body that spends billions of pounds of taxpayers' money could restrict the public's ability to ask questions about how their money is spent, Publicservice.co.uk understands. And Labour has said the move could allow the government to avoid "difficult" questions.
The revelation comes amid growing concerns that bodies across the public sector are escaping their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act as they are merged and re-organised by the government.
Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), set to spend £150bn over the next 10 years as the MoD's procurement arm, could become a government owned contractor operated (GOCO) entity under proposals announced by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond. A final decision is expected this year.
But the MoD is still unclear on how any new GOCO organisation will shape up. This uncertainty extends to how the organisation will be accountable to the public under freedom of information (FoI), one defence source told Publicservice.co.uk.
The Atomic Weapons Establishment, an existing MoD GOCO body, is currently subject to FoI laws. But restrictions apply on the type of information the public can request.
It is currently possible to request information held on behalf of the MoD by the establishment. This includes nuclear records. But the public cannot place FoI requests on plans for "running the business", the source said.
DE&S is currently responsible for procuring everything from warships, to fighter jets and the boots on soldiers' feet, accounting for nearly half of the MoD's total annual spend.
Speaking to Publicservice.co.uk Labour's shadow defence minister Alison Seabeck said the lack of certainty over FoI posed an "extremely interesting question". There was a need for MoD procurement contracts to be "very, very transparent".
"That works particularly well for small to medium sized enterprises," she said. "They are the ones who are saying 'we can drive through further efficiencies if we can get some more accountability and transparency into the contracting arrangements'."
Small companies which were struggling to get into MoD procurement had "genuine concerns" that transparency "doesn't happen at the moment."
Moving to a GOCO model posed further issues. Seabeck questioned who the body would be accountable to, an organisation which would be at "more than arms length".
There was a "potential risk" that it would be more difficult to track the taxpayers' pound. And the recent G4S Olympic security "debacle" demonstrated the dangers of what was happening at arms length.
Creating a GOCO could also allow the government to avoid "difficult questions".
"We want the government to come clean on their thinking on this," she said. "Are they intending to have a body which is subject to FoI?"
Concerns about FoI have been expressed more widely in government. Information Commissioner Christopher Graham warned in July of accountability "escaping under the door". In an interview with the Guardian he warned the new National Crime Agency would not be subject to FoI despite that fact it was taking on functions from the Borders Agency and the National Policing Improvement Agency, bodies currently required to release information at the public's request.
"Just because the public pound is being spent by a commercial providerů shouldn't mean that the citizen is denied information rights in the process," he said.