A MP says she is “deeply concerned by the creeping veil of secrecy in public services” after challenging the transparency of a council contract with a private firm.
Rosie Cooper has secured a commitment from the Communities and Local Government Secretary to investigate her worries over West Lancashire Council’s agreement with One Connect Limited.
The private company, run by BT, has taken over the running of multiple County Hall functions, with the aim of saving £400m over 10 years.
The West Lancashire MP asked Eric Pickles how county and borough councillors could carry out their duties and protect taxpayers’ interests by scrutinising the deal, if they were denied information as both councils refuse to reveal the contract’s details.
She said: “For months I’ve been concerned about the lack of openness, transparency and publicly available information about the agreement between One Connect Limited, Lancashire County Council and West Lancashire Council.
“Back in July 2012 we had a situation in which borough council staff were stopped from moving across to One Connect Limited, having packed their belongings and held a leaving party.
“Despite questions from councillors, media, MPs and trade unions, no answers or explanation was given. No information was offered as to the reason for this situation.”
West Lancashire Council signed a 10-year contract for One Connect Limited to deliver its revenue, benefits and ICT services in October 2011.
It is valued at £29m on the council’s contract register.
Ms Cooper said: “Whenever questions are asked of One Connect Limited, Lancashire County Council or West Lancashire Council about the contract, services, performance or staffing issues, you are met with the brick wall of ‘commercial confidentiality’.
“I have no view on whether One Connect Limited is providing a good level of service, or whether they are offering value for money for taxpayers.
“My problem is we don’t know the answers because they all refuse to provide any information. Yet this is a service funded by taxpayers. It is their money and they deserve to know how their money is being spent and whether they are getting value for money.
“The Secretary of State thinks all items of expenditure over £500 should be published on council websites, yet West Lancashire Council and Lancashire County Council can spend £29m, tie us into a contract for 10, possibly 15 years, and the people paying the bill can’t see the contract.
“It doesn’t seem like open transparent Local Government to me.”
County Coun Geoff Driver, leader of Lancashire County Council said: “Miss Cooper doesn’t know what she is talking about.
“One Connect Ltd saves West Lancashire council tax payers £500,000 every year. This is on top of the £10m LCC saves annually.
“There is an all-party committee at LCC which oversees the OCL operation and the members of Wets Lancashire Council are also involved in the monitoring process.
“Instead of trying to make mischief Miss Cooper should get her facts right.”