Saturday, January 21, 2012

Irish 'commercial sensitivity' excuse a relic from Victorian times

Ireland is a very conservative place and the cocktail of inertia and an attitude resistance to change, often powered by vested interests, invariably trumps the public interest. The Irish excuse of 'commercial sensitivity' to keep information on public spending hidden from the public is a durable relic from Victorian times.

Prof Richard Tol, the environmental economist, who recently left the ESRI (Economic and Social Research Institute) and joined the staff of the University of Surrey, has commented on the public consultation on the establishment of Irish Water, the planned state agency.

He has argued that charging for water and waste water is right and proper; and doing so through a state-owned, tightly regulated monopoly is a reasonable solution (although you can argue for a mutual company instead).

A report commissioned from PWC, the Big 4 accounting firm, says:

“For the Public Utility Model a high level assessment was undertaken in relation to what the financial position of the business might be and in particular the likely funding requirements, based upon a number of assumptions made and sensitivities chosen. Given the commercially sensitive nature of aspects of this assessment, some of the specific assumptions and the detailed findings have been redacted from this section of report.”

Prof. Tol in a thread on the Irish Economy website says: "Ireland is an unwilling party to the Aarhus Convention, which grants access to data except 'where such confidentiality [of commercial and industrial information] is protected by law in order to protect a legitimate economic interest'. As Irish Water will be a monopoly, I do not think there is a 'legitimate' economic interest in hiding data.

Unfortunately, state-owned companies have made a habit of hiding behind 'commercial sensitivity' when there is none."

I have added this comment:

The state guarantee of employment for the public service and the secrecy that protects insiders in the €15bn public procurement system dates from the reign of Queen Victoria.

In recent years the Empire Day holiday has been on the agenda of the crew of the slow boat to China.

The conservative instinct is still very strong (note how lawyers on the left and right of the spectrum over the decades never saw reason for reform of the archaic British system.)

I wonder if the problem is more than just conservatism and self-interest.

We appear to have a big share of both dim and timid people in the country.

We have had ideas competitions but it would be strange to find the people who could implement change propose ideas that would gain public attention.