FOIMan reports on calls from FOI campaigners for a Bill to extend FOI to private companies that deliver public services.

House of Commons
House of Commons

This week MPs will learn if they have won the opportunity to put forward their own “Private Members Bill” for consideration by Parliament. The Campaign for Freedom of Information has written to them asking them to consider a new FOI (Contractor Information) Bill if they win one of the coveted places in the ballot taking place tomorrow (12 June).

There has been considerable controversy around the issue of whether FOI should apply to private companies. The Justice Select Committee concluded that it was not necessary and that contractual provisions could be used to ensure transparency of outsourced public services. However, Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, has repeatedly called for FOI “to follow the public pound”. The Labour Party has committed to legislation to this effect should it win next year’s election. In March of this year, Simon Hughes, the Minister with responsibility for FOI, drew the line at such a move, but promised new guidance on contractors and FOI to improve transparency.

For its part, the Campaign has highlighted a number of cases where the status quo has resulted in information relating to public services being delivered by private contractors being withheld. These include:

  • the numbers of parking tickets issued, then cancelled on appeal, by traffic wardens employed by a council contractor and offered Argos points as incentives to issue tickets;
  •  the qualifications of assessors used to verify that incapacity benefit claims have been properly dealt with by the DWP’s contractor, Atos; and
  • the cost of providing Sky television to prisoners, and the number of cells with their own telephones, at HM Prison Dovegate, a privately managed prison.

Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, says:

each new outsourcing contract reduces the public’s right to know. Information that is essential for accountability may be kept secret simply because the authority didn’t expect to need it and didn’t specify it in the contract. This bill would close a major loophole that is weakening the FOI Act day by day.

The Campaign was instrumental in making the case for FOI legislation in the UK and has subsequently proved a staunch defender of the right to know. If you’d like to support its work, please consider donating to it.