Transparency obscured by confidentiality agreements
Transparency is being obscured by the use of confidentiality agreements by public sector organisations, according to the National Assembly’s Public Accounts committee.
In its annual scrutiny of the accounts of public bodies, the Committee felt that information was too often withheld under the pretext of commercial sensitivity. The Welsh Government’s agreements with Aston Martin for its new plant at St Athan, and the erstwhile Circuit of Wales project in Ebbw Vale were highlighted as cases where government ministers and officials had withheld key documents; preventing the possibility of robust scrutiny.
While this may be appropriate in some cases, the Committee determined public bodies need to balance this with the requirement for open disclosure in the public interest. It called for more transparency around the reporting of some areas of actual or potential expenditure.
The Committee also highlights cases at Natural Resources Wales and the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales where confidential payments totalling more than £140,000 have been paid to individuals leaving the organisations in 2017/18.
When more information was requested by the Committee to determine whether the payments were value for money, Assembly Members were told nothing could be discussed because of legal agreements. Members were concerned that confidentiality agreements could have the potential to act as significant barriers to whistleblowing and cover up issues within the culture of an organisation.
"The Committee accepts there may be circumstances when an organisation needs to protect information or data for confidential purposes,” said Nick Ramsay AM, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.
“But these clauses must not be used as a default position by public sector bodies to avoid scrutiny which could potentially be embarrassing. It is important the public has confidence in public sector spending.”
The Committee was also critical of the Welsh Government’s failure to publish its accounts bilingually, with the Welsh version coming two weeks after the English version.
The Committee believes the Welsh Government has an example to set for all government funded public sector organisations in meeting the Welsh language standards it has set.
Mr Ramsay said:
“That the Welsh Government effectively contravened its own Welsh language requirements is concerning and disappointing.
“We would expect the government to be setting a positive example in meeting the requirements it sets out for other public bodies.”
This year the Public Accounts Committee scrutinised the accounts of the Welsh Government, National Assembly for Wales Commission, Public Services Ombudmsan for Wales and National Museum Wales and made many recommendations for each.
In considering the Assembly Commission’s accounts the Committee raised concerns at rising levels of staff absence and sickness.
Concerns were also raised by Members after finding out National Museum Wales does not publish an annual equalities report, despite a statutory requirement to do so. The Committee recommends this is rectified at the earliest opportunity.
Read the full report:
Public Accounts Committee Report - Scrutiny of Accounts 2017-18 (PDF, 1 MB)