Freedom of Information Act 2000 - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:01 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat 7:01 pm, 23rd July 2019

My Lords, I welcome this timely debate from my noble friend Lord McNally. It is timely for those of us who live in Yorkshire after the recent revelations that have come out from Welcome to Yorkshire, the tourist board, about spending, expenses and a toxic culture that has been going on for many years. Because this is now a private company that predominantly carries out a public function, it is not subject to freedom of information and the taxpayers of Yorkshire have not been able to get to the unfolding issues as fast as possible.

Until 2009 this organisation was a public body, the Yorkshire Tourist Board. In 2009 the new chief executive, Gary Verity, decided to make it a private limited company, and therefore completely and totally out of scope of freedom of information and all other public sector rules, driven by private company legislation and subject to its shareholders. In the last 10 years, this body has had over £10 million of public money. It basically gets half its funding from the public sector and the rest from small to medium-sized businesses. This is big business. Over the last four years, it has got £596,000 from East Riding council, £438,000 from North Yorkshire County Council, over £800,000 from Leeds City Council, £250,000 from my own city of Sheffield and £193,000 from Barnsley. In reality, it does not get this money from the council but from the council tax payers, who have a right to know who is spending their money and how.

Due to the lack of freedom of information, no one really knows what has been going on under the auspices of Welcome to Yorkshire. Many have said it has been a successful organisation in bringing the Tour de France and the Tour de Yorkshire there. However, the ends have to justify the means—and the means are quite breathtaking. There have been major excesses and scandals that nobody has been able to get to for years and years, starting back in 2012, because every time we asked for information we were told it was a private company and nothing to do with us.

These excesses include luxury spending on helicopters; hotels at £600 a night at the Connaught; lavish meals during which the chief executive, Gary Verity, and the former chair, Ron McMillan, played games involving who could get the most expensive wine on expenses; chauffeur-driven cars to take people a few miles; shooting expeditions—seen as networking—at £2,500 a day; and expeditions around the country. Only yesterday it came to my attention via a former employee that there is a possibility that a flat in Leeds, which was either purchased or had its mortgage or rent payments paid, was given to Gary Verity for him to stay there, and that that flat is now rented out and the former chief executive claimed hotel expenses while in Leeds.

This is why freedom of information is important. Only yesterday I asked the interim chair, Keith Stewart, to clarify this and got an email refusing to do so, saying that it had given me the courtesy of answering one question about expenses yesterday and was going to answer no more. Serious allegations are made about the misuse of public money, and nobody can get to them. That board has closed ranks and is not giving taxpayers the views they need.

I want to praise a number of people. A few staff have put their heads above the parapet: Annie Drew, a former PA to Gary Verity; Helen Long, also a former PA; and Dee Marshall, a former executive director. I also praise some hard-working journalists: David Collins of the Sunday Times, who exposed some of this stuff; Sheron Boyle of Sheron Boyle Media and ITV; David Rhodes of the BBC; and Chris Burn of the Yorkshire Post. This has been going on for years. If we had had freedom of information, we would have been able to get this information many years ago, some of the excesses probably would not have happened, some of the people who carried out these excesses would have been sacked or got rid of earlier, and there would have been proper procedures, policies, spending and procurement in this organisation.

We are told this first came to light in 2012, three years after this organisation became a private limited company, when a previous chair, Clare Morrow, was alerted to a bullying issue by a former PA to Gary Verity. Despite serious allegations being made, this was brushed under the carpet, a £10,000 payout was made and an NDA signed. There was a culture of bullying and toxicity. In the last 11 years, we now find out, Gary Verity has had 20 personal assistants. We do not know how much has been paid out on the NDAs because we are not allowed to get that information. When we ask for it under freedom of information, we are told it is not subject to FoI because, even though the organisation has spent over £10 million of public money, it is not a public body.