The Scottish local authority which repeatedly refused to release information about its failed waste management contract and had to be ordered to make top secret documents public on several occasions by the information commissioner has just been described as "open and transparent" by spending watchdog Audit Scotland.
This unlikely and frankly incredible conclusion is reached in Audit Scotland's annual audit report on Scottish Borders Council's accounts for 2016/17 which will be presented to a council committee next week. The finding is about as plausible as the outcome of the audit into the waste contract itself which provided SBC with a clean bill of health despite losing millions of pounds of taxpayers' money.
According to the audit report, beneath a heading Governance and transparency it states:"The Council has appropriate governance arrangements in place that support the scrutiny of decisions made by the Council. The Council is open and transparent in the way it conducts it business and the public can attend meetings of the Council and its standing committees."
But the fact is SBC's own Scrutiny Committee was not allowed to examine the four year fiasco which resulted from the decision to hook up with insolvent contractors New Earth Solutions. And members of the public have been able to attend ALL council committee meetings in Scotland since the 1975 reform of local government. At the same time councillors can decide to hold sections of meetings in private whenever they wish.
Later on, five whole paragraphs are devoted to the council's superb transparency arrangements. In the interests of accuracy and fairness we have decided to quote paragraphs 78-82 of the report verbatim:
78. Transparency means that the public, in particular local residents, have access to understandable, relevant and timely information about how the Council is taking decisions and how it is using resources such as money, people and assets.
79. There is evidence from a number of sources which demonstrate the Council's commitment to transparency. Members of the public can attend meetings of the full Council, executive and other committees. Minutes of these committee meetings and supporting papers are readily available on the Council’s website.
80. The Council’s website allows the public to access a wide range of information including the register of members’ interests, current consultations and surveys and how to make a complaint.
81. The Council makes its annual accounts available on its website. These include a management commentary which provides details of performance against budget, information on the use of reserves and risks and uncertainties facing the Council.
82. Overall, we concluded that the Council conducts its business in an open and transparent manner.
On reading this glowing testament to openness, a former councillor told us: "What a lot of claptrap, This stuff is just padding and alluding to what every council is obliged to do. What's great about public attending meetings or having access to accounts? Who are Audit Scotland trying to fool?"
The very next section of the document deals with SBC's Freedom of Information handling. And here again, despite recent events which saw the council lambasted (twice) for wrongly withholding information it did not want the public to see, Audit Scotland claims everything in SBC's information garden is rosy!
This is what the report says:
83. During 2017 the Scottish Information Commissioner has issued two rulings against the Council regarding its handling of a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from a member of the public. These decisions found that the Council had not complied with the requirements of the FoI legislation and had incorrectly withheld information.
84. As part of our audit work we held meetings with Council officers to discuss how the Council had responded to the FoI requests, and to determine whether the Council had identified any lessons to be learned from the handling of the request or any improvements to its process for dealing with requests. Based on the work carried out, we are satisfied that the Council has an appropriate system in place for responding to FoI requests and that improvements have been adopted.
So that's all right then!
Audit Scotland came up with a similar 'lessons learned' conclusion following the failed £23 million project to provide the Borders with a suitable waste treatment facility. It described the massive loss of public funds as "a poor outcome" but maintained SBC followed correct procedures in ditching their useless contractors in 2015.
Unfortunately that audit did not come up with an explanation for the huge gamble taken by elected members in sanctioning a form of rubbish incineration which had never been tested and could not be made to function. An investigation into that aspect of the debacle, and perhaps the role of Audit Scotland in the affair, is still required.