Whitehall ‘gagging’ clauses to be banned

So-called ‘gagging’ clauses in PFI and other contracts between government
departments and other public bodies and industry could be effectively outlawed
if the most influential Parliamentary committee has its way.

The Commons Liaison Committee comprising the chairman of most other
committees has called for an extension of provisions that allow the National
Audit Office to examine arrangements claimed to be ‘commercially confidential’
to committees tasked with monitoring individual departments.

The committee said: ‘It is inherent in the House’s right to control
expenditure that the House and select committees should have access to
sufficient information about PFI contracts to make possible an assessment of
whether they offer value for money, of the extent to which public bodies are
locked into long-term commitments and of the extent to which risk is transferred
to the private sector or retained within the public sector.’

The report, which demands a major overhaul to improve Parliamentary scrutiny,
also called for MPs to see the result of Gershon Efficiency Reviews, previously
regarded as confidential but which committees have begun to have access in

It said claims of confidentiality were also a problem for committees looking
into major IT projects and noted that the Information Commissioner and
Information Tribunal have rejected arguments that contracts between a public
authority and a commercial organisation are wholly exempt from disclosure unless
there were identified prejudicial consequences.

The MPs welcomed a Treasury-lead drive to align the three financial control
systems used to oversee public spending: departmental budgets resulting from
spending reviews, estimates seeking annual Parliamentary authority for
expenditure and annual resource accounts.

They said: ‘Had such a system been deliberately designed, it could fairly be
assumed that it had been set up with the specific purpose of making it
impossible to hold the government and departments to account.’

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