AN academic’s unsuccessful bid to uncover purchasing details of specialist speech and language therapy equipment held by NHS Borders has, he claimed this week, exposed “a weakness” in Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation.

“The FoI system unfortunately encourages a siege mentality in the public body from which information is requested,” said Dr Joe Reddington, a medical researcher based at London University’s Royal Holloway Hospital.

His comments come three months after the watchdog Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) ordered NHS Borders to supply Dr Reddington with as much information as it could within the statutory FoI cost limit of £600.

Dr Reddington, however, maintains that all the data he requires could easily be supplied for a fraction of that cost.

The saga goes back to February last year when, invoking FoI, Dr Reddington asked NHS Borders for details of the alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) devices supplied and purchased from March 31, 2006 to April 1, 2012, along with a breakdown of product name and date of acquisition.

These are the devices which transform the lives of people who cannot express themselves through speech and range from state-of-the-art computers with bespoke software to low-tech communication books.

Dr Reddington, who requested the same five-year details from health authorities across the UK, revealed his interest in assessing the nationwide provision of such devices.

“My brother has never been able to speak and has only limited use of sign,” he explained. “When, quite late in life, he was able to make use of an electronic AAC device, it was genuinely life-changing for him and his family.” Dr Reddington’s curiosity was further stimulated in 2008 when an independent review made disturbing conclusions.

“The review found that the provision of services for children and adults with communication impairment was ‘unacceptable’ with families perceiving a ‘post-code lottery’ and service providers acknowledging that national coverage was ‘variable and ad hoc’ and that this contributed to a situation that was unclear and unfair,” said Dr Reddington.

“I remember being taken aback by the idea that there were people like my brother who might have been denied access to life-changing assistive technology simply because of where they lived.” In March, NHS Borders responded to his request, providing a list of devices, from talking photo albums to button-activated recording/playback equipment, which were “currently in use or not”.

However, the health authority added: “NHS Borders does not hold information about when specific items were purchased and we cannot, therefore, provide a breakdown by year of purchase.

“The department [Speech and Language Therapy] which purchases this type of equipment does not maintain a record of purchases.” Believing that this did little to aid his research, Dr Reddington asked NHS Borders to review its response.

In April, the health authority wrote again to Dr Reddington to defend its position.It stated that each department was expected to keep registers of equipment they purchased, but there was “no prescribed format” for such registers.

“In the case of Speech and Language Therapy, they do not record the date of purchase, only a list of items they have.” NHS Borders added that the department had bought no AAC devices in the preceding year.

Dr Reddington lodged a complaint with the SIC which monitors how public bodies comply with FoI legislation.

In her decision, commissioner Rosemary Agnew noted that only when her investigation was under way did NHS Borders admit that it did hold further information, but to provide it would cost more than £600.

“I must therefore find that NHS Borders breached [the legislation] as it held further relevant information when it received Dr Reddington’s request [in February] and incorrectly notified him [in March and April] that it did not,” said Mrs Agnew During her probe, NHS Borders claimed retrieving the salient information from the 8,100 invoices it had received over the last six years would cost £730 in staff time alone. This included 40 hours of a finance clerk’s time at £12.64 per hour and 10 hours of a speech therapist’s time at £18.32 per hour.

The cost of printing out the documents was estimated at a further £650.

Mrs Agnew observed: “In order to bring the cost within the £600 threshhold, NHS Borders estimated it would need to restrict the retrieval to 12-18 months’ worth of invoices. It could not guarantee how much of the information sought by Dr Reddington would be captured in these invoices.” Despite NHS Borders only playing the cost card once the commissioner was involved, Mrs Agnew accepted that, on cost grounds, the health board was not obliged to comply with Dr Reddington’s original request.

However, the commissioner ordered NHS Borders to “advise Dr Reddington by September 15 as to what relevant information could be located, retrieved and provided within the cost limit.” Since then, there has been an exhaustive exchange of emails between the health board and Dr Reddington, with the former accepting just before Christmas that it could now supply, within the cost limit, between 24 and 30 months’ worth of invoices.

But this has failed to assuage the researcher who has obtained testimonials from the companies which supplied the purchasing and invoicing software to NHS Borders.

“These indicate that the NHS Borders estimates of over 50 hours work are excessive,” said Dr Reddington. “Indeed, this is a 15-minute job for someone who knows how to use the database, while the estimate of £650 of paper printing is a little silly” Dr Reddington told the Peeblesshire: “Instead of information relating to 12-18 months, I am now offered 24-30 months with no explanation of why the first estimate was so inaccurate.

“My own overview is that, at best, this is a sign that health board staff are not being trained to use expensive financial systems. At worst, this might be a sign the health authority is inflating cost estimates with the effect that spending decisions are being concealed from the public.

“One of the weaknesses of the FoI system is that it unfortunately encourages a siege mentality from the public body and a really antagonistic relationship with the public.

“Instead of having to go down the FoI route, if I had been able to chat with the Speech and Language Therapy lead or a member of the finance team a year ago, we could have worked out between us what was easy for them and useful to the public. It could all have been sorted out within an hour.” A spokesman for NHS Borders said that the revised cost of the information retrieval supplied to the SIC was “correct”.