MPs who come up in this week’s ballot for private members’ bills are being urged to introduce a bill to improve the public’s right to know about public service contracts.
Contractors are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOI). Only information which the contractor is considered to hold on behalf of the authority is accessible, via an FOI request to the public authority. This varies depending on the terms of each individual contract and often excludes significant information.
Examples of contractor-held information which the Information Commissioner has ruled is not available under the FOI Act 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;
• how often a contractor-managed council swimming pool had been needlessly closed to the public because it had been booked by schools which did not use their slots;
• arrangements made by a subcontractor to restore Leyton Marsh after its use as a temporary basketball court during the Olympics;
• the qualifications of assessors used to verify that incapacity benefit claims have been properly dealt with by the DWP’s contractor, Atos;
• 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.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information has written to MPs urging them to introduce the Freedom of Information (Contractor Information) Bill if they win a slot in the ballot for bills taking place this Thursday (June 12). The bill would ensure that all information held by a contractor about a public service contract is subject to the FOI Act, regardless of what the contract itself says. The Act’s exemptions and public interest test would protect genuinely sensitive information which should not be disclosed.
The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said: “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 pointed out that the influential Public Accounts Committee in the House of Commons has repeatedly called for the FOI Act to be strengthened in this way. In a 2011 report the PAC recommended that “Freedom of information should be extended to private companies providing public services” . In 2012 it said “where private companies provide public services funded by the taxpayer, those areas of their business which are publicly funded should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act provision” .
Notes ‘Lessons from PFI and Other Projects’, 44th report of session 2010-12, HC 1201, 18 July 2011. ‘Department for Work and Pensions: the Introduction of the Work Programme’, 85th report of session 2010-12, HC 1814, 25 April 2012.