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Value for money and FOI

Martin Rosenbaum | 08:54 UK time, Friday, 4 February 2011

Earlier this week the National Audit Office declared that hospitals often pay more than necessary when purchasing supplies. It drew attention to different procurement methods in different parts of the NHS.

Hospital ward

This raises the question of the role of transparency and freedom of information in ensuring the public sector gets value for money in what it buys from private companies.

The NAO report is certainly a more substantial piece of work than the document produced by Sir Philip Green [176KB PDF], who last year conducted an efficiency review of procurement in central government.

Sir Philip's conclusions have themselves been the subject of an interesting FOI request from the computer magazine PC Pro, who wanted to know more about the basis for some of the apparently startling comparisons of purchases which he referred to.

The government refused to release the details on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, and the magazine has now appealed to the Information Commissioner.

We've also tried to use FOI to shed more light on the efficiency or otherwise of public procurement, a process which often raises these tricky issues of commercial confidentiality.

By the way, I should state that naturally I'm aware that the BBC itself sometimes rejects FOI applications on the basis of commercial confidentiality. Judging by previous experience a few of you may wish to make this point in the comments, which of course is fine. But please note this point: how the BBC handles incoming FOI requests does not and should not constrain the BBC's journalism.

A BBC investigation a year ago based on FOI revealed how local councils paid widely varying prices for road salt, in a market dominated by just two suppliers. What was also very interesting was that we found major differences in councils' attitudes to openness, ranging from some who were immediately happy to provide full details of amounts purchased, supplier and price, to others who would not supply any of this data.

More recently Francis Maude, the minister leading the government's transparency agenda, told last year's Conservative party conference that the coalition had already saved several 100 million pounds by renegotiating contracts with large suppliers.

My colleague Julia Ross asked the Cabinet Office to break this down by supplier, so that we could examine and report on the exact nature and extent of the savings obtained. The government confirmed they held the information, but this week declined to reveal it.

They argued that it would harm commercial confidentiality and also damage relationships with suppliers. The minister who gave his formal opinion that disclosure would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs was the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who is Francis Maude.

In another case we asked the Department for Health last year how much they spent on buying swine flu vaccine for the predicted pandemic, which they refused to say.

Last month in an important decision the Information Commissioner ruled that the DH should reveal the sums paid to GSK and Baxter Healthcare, although not the quantities of vaccine involved nor the pricing.

At this stage we don't yet know whether the department will supply us with the data or appeal the decision to the tribunal and leave the issue unresolved for longer.


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