Two consultations on FOI this year

Justice minister, Simon Hughes, today confirmed there would be two significant consultations on the Freedom of Information Act this year:

Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab):
What plans he has to bring forward legislative proposals to expand the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.[903116]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Simon Hughes):
There has been good progress in extending the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act because the coalition Government pledged to extend its scope to provide greater transparency. We extended it in 2010 to academies, in 2011 to the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Financial Ombudsman Service and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, and last year to 100 companies wholly owned by more than one public authority. The next item on the agenda is to do with Network Rail, and we are awaiting a view from the Department for Transport as to whether it thinks it would be appropriate for that to be implemented this year.

Lindsay Roy:
What benefits have accrued to the Government and citizens from the implementation of the Act, and when does the Minister plan to extend its scope further?

Simon Hughes:
We intend to extend it further as soon as is practical. One specific issue that I hope will be of interest to the hon. Gentleman—as it is to colleagues of his, including those who have come to see me about it—is that we intend to publish a revised code of practice to make sure that private companies that carry out public functions have freedom of information requirements in their contracts and go further than that. We hope that that will be in place by the end of this year.

Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con):
There is one area where the Minister should perhaps look at narrowing the scope of the Act, because my understanding is that requests can be made by anybody anywhere on the face of the earth; they do not have to be British citizens. It is not the role of the British Government to be a taxpayer-funded research service for anyone on the globe. May I suggest that he narrow the scope to those for whom the Government work—citizens of our country?

Simon Hughes:
I well understand my hon. Friend’s point. There will be two consultations this year: first, on precisely such issues about the scope of the current legislation to make sure that it is not abused while we retain freedom of information as a principle of Government; and secondly, on extending it to other areas where we have not gone so far.

The first of these consultations will confirm whether the government is taking forward proposals to restrict the FOI Act. Its proposals were outlined in its response to the Justice Committee’s report on post-legislative scrutiny of the Act. The Campaign along with 76 other organisations has urged the government to drop them.

It’s not clear what issues will be covered by the second consultation. The government is currently consulting a number of bodies that appear to have public functions with a view to designating them as public authorities under the legislation. But the critical development would be to bring contractors under the FOI Act in their own right, something the government has so far resisted.

The Justice committee’s report suggested that public authorities should continue to rely on contractual disclosure provisions, requiring the contractor to provide information to the authority to enable it to respond to FOI requests. This approach has significant limitations: contractual provisions often do not apply to all relevant information, a point which the government has finally acknowledged. The government encourages public authorities and contractors to nevertheless provide information which they think the requester and the wider public may be interested voluntarily. But the whole purpose of the FOI Act was to replace voluntary disclosure with a statutory right of access to information. It’s this which is being eroded by outsourcing. The government says if its  ‘light touch approach’ fails it will consider other steps, including making contractors subject to the Act in their own right.  We believe this should be top of the agenda in the forthcoming consultation.

Update 21/3/14: A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice has reportedly confirmed that at present there are “no plans to extend the act to either private or third sector organisations that have been awarded contracts to deliver public services”.

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