The Welsh Government (WG) broke the law in withholding information about controversial ‘procurement cards’ The Eye can disclose.
Hundreds of the cards are in circulation and have been used to spend more than £4 million of taxpayers’ money over the last four years.
A complainant in South Wales had requested the WG supply the original receipts for this money.
But this was refused by the WG and the complainant was invited to refine her request.
This too was refused.
But the Information Commission Office (ICO) has just ruled: “The Commissioner’s decision is that the Welsh Government in failing to provide appropriate advice and assistance in its response to both the original and refined request has breached Section 16 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)… the Welsh Government cannot rely on Section 12 in respect of the complainant’s refined request”.
The WG had provided an explanation of why it had withheld information, but the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, is dismissive, saying: “The Commissioner does not accept this…”
The devastating ruling goes on to state: “The Commissioner is concerned at the Welsh Government’s continued narrow interpretation of the complainant’s requests and its failure to engage further with either the complainant or the ICO…”
The history of ‘procurement cards’ is contentious, and the Conservatives have called on the Wales Audit Office (WAO) to review their use.
In November 2015 it was reported that the WG had refused to publish the findings of a review by its own Internal Audit Service.
Approximately £1.3m was spent using the cards in 2014-15.
The Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies wrote to the Auditor General (AG) calling for greater openness and urged the WAO to conduct its own review.
He said: “… there is no transparency in the current system and therefore no accountability.
“Millions of pounds are being spent on staff credit cards by Welsh Government employees, and the public needs to have confidence that the system isn’t being abused and that the taxpayer is getting value for money.”
In a response to Mr Davies’ request to publish the findings of the review into procurement cards, the then WG Minister for Finance and Government Business Jane Hutt, said: “The Welsh Government does not release the results of reviews undertaken by our Internal Audit Service.
“However, all internal audit reports are shared with the WAO should they wish to pursue issues further.”
But two years ago the TaxPayers Alliance (TPA) took a different view.
Jonathan Isaby, chief executive, said: “Taxpayers will be very worried that spending on Welsh (Government) procurement cards looks like it will rise sharply.
“Using these credit cards to cover work-related expenses and purchases for offices is an efficient way of conducting transactions, but it is deeply concerning that right now the system is shrouded in secrecy.”
The complainant says she feels vindicated that her complaint has been upheld.
She told The Eye: “The Welsh Government seems determined to waste yet more public money by preventing people from knowing how it spends Wales’ money…
“The ICO’s decision reflects the understanding of the inability of an ordinary member of the public to deal with organisations that refuse to help members of the paying public process justified legitimate requests for information, by treating them with contempt and using deliberate obfuscation, as a strategy to do so.”
It is a strategy that has not worked.
They broke the law.