Belfast Telegraph

We have to keep our eyes on public purse

By Liam Clarke

All the main parties at Stormont are, to some degree, signed up to handing the supply of some public services over to the private, or social enterprise, sector.

The DUP, currently re-inventing itself as a centre-Right party, rather like the Christian Democrats in Europe, is strongest on the idea.

It has manifesto commitments to social enterprise bonds, allowing private companies to tender for activities, like the rehabilitation of offenders, and to get paid for by results.

Sinn Fein takes a traditional left-of-centre view of the public sector, but it, too, seeks to revitalise areas like west Belfast, partly by allowing local social enterprises to tender for public services.

The faith sector - churches and religious charities - is also being encouraged to get involved in providing services as a contractor, or partner, to the public service. It is all intended to drive efficiency, reduce costs and tap into goodwill.

It may be a good idea, but the contracting bodies need to be made accountable for the public money they handle - and we need to be able to find out before something goes wrong.

That is why we should pick up an idea looked at, but discarded in spite of general popular support, by the Scottish Executive: extending the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to anyone delivering services on behalf of the state.

There is provision for this to happen, but it hasn't been implemented. In Scotland, the contractors objected. Politicians often don't like the FOI, either.

Tony Blair, who introduced it, famously lived to regret it and described it as a "pretty imbecilic idea". Some Stormont politicians are also critical and regard it as an unnecessary expense.

But in an age when politicians surround themselves with banks of taxpayer-funded advisers and spin-doctors, it is worth spending some money on allowing the public direct access to information.

Contractors will cite commercial confidentiality, but this can be protected by a commissioner with a right to look at the information, consider the public interest involved and make a call on whether to release some, all or none of what has been requested.

This is what happens here in the public sector, as it does for private sector contractors in South Africa, for example.

The history of private bodies - even faith bodies - providing public services has not always been such that they don't need scrutiny.

Let's stick to faith groups for the sake of brevity. Just this week, a St John of God-run home in west Belfast had to be de-registered after a resident burnt to death and management was found to be inadequate.

The taxpayer funds many of these homes - just as the taxpayer funded the Kincora, Nazareth Lodge and other children's homes, where physical and sexual abuse took place.

No doubt the inquiry being set up by the Executive into institutional abuse will uncover other examples.

In other fields, the main concern may be financial. What can't be denied is that, if the bodies running these services knew their records could be accessed directly by the public, not to mention their clients and employees, it would help keep them on their toes and build public confidence.

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