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BMJ. 2007 November 3; 335(7626): 906–907.
PMCID: PMC2048832

Health authority forced to publish private contract for hospital build

A Scottish health authority has failed to prevent details being publicly released of a private contract to build one of the United Kingdom's most expensive hospitals.

NHS Lothian has been ordered under Freedom of Information legislation to release the contract it signed with a private consortium to build and maintain the £184m (€263m; $378m) Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

The hospital, which was opened in 2003, is one of the biggest to have been built under the private finance initiative, now known as public private partnerships. Under the initiative, the private sector builds and pays for new health facilities. In return, the NHS pays an annual charge to the private sector—often for 30 years or more.

NHS Lothian initially rejected a Freedom of Information request for a copy of the contract, claiming the information was exempt under the terms of the legislation. It said the private consortium, Consort Healthcare, considered the information to be commercially sensitive and that its release would amount to an actionable breach of confidence.

An appeal was then made to the Scottish information commissioner, who asked NHS Lothian to supply a copy of the contract and explain why its component parts should be considered exempt.

The commissioner, Kevin Dunion, sharply criticised the health board on several counts. He said that it failed to provide the full range of information at the outset and only supplied the complete documentation late into his investigation. He also said that it tried to claim a blanket exemption of confidentiality while providing “virtually no arguments to justify withholding the contract.”

NHS Lothian has said it will comply with the ruling and release the contract as soon as practically possible.

Allyson Pollock, of the Department of International Health Policy at the University of Edinburgh, welcomed the decision.

“This is an important precedent. It will be the first time that we will be able to scrutinise how public funds are being used in practice,” she said. “It has been too easy until now for public authorities to hide behind arguments about business confidentiality.”

Opponents of private finance initiative schemes argue that they represent poor value for money and result in the NHS paying many times more in rental charges than the initial building costs. A report from Professor Pollock's department last year found that the NHS in Scotland faces having to pay more than £2.4bn in charges to private companies over the next 30 years for schemes that cost £602m to build.

Notes

The full decision is at www.itspublicknowledge.info.


Articles from The BMJ are provided here courtesy of BMJ Group