Labour’s election manifesto promises to extend FOI “so that public services run by large private companies are included” – a welcome step. However, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) have expressed doubts about this proposal and are instead calling for transparency to be achieved by proactive publication of information about contracts presumably via the Institute for Government’s proposals. These envisage a contractor and authority agreeing between themselves in advance what information about the performance of the contract will be published; allowing the contractor to verify any information before it is published; and allowing the authority to withhold the promised information if it considers publication would be contrary to the public interest.
We have no particular problem with the IfG proposals themselves. We do have a problem if they are used to prevent the FOI Act being extended to provide an adequate right of access to contractor held information.
NCVO now appears to see the IfG proposals as an alternative to an extension of FOI. So we are seeing the leading voluntary sector organisation seeking to avoid bringing contractors, including the gigantic multinational contractors, under the Act, presumably to avoid voluntary sector contractors coming under it.
This could be done by (a) bringing the major contractors (eg Serco, G4S) directly under the FOI Act in relation to their public service contracts and (b) providing that information about other contractors’ public service contracts is deemed to be held on behalf of the authority concerned, so that it falls within the scope of an FOI request to that authority.
Labour appear to be proposing the first of these options. A more effective solution would be to adopt both.
Postscript: In 2008 NCVO argued that charities delivering public services under contract should not be brought under the FOI Act, later suggesting that to do so would undermine their independence. In 2006 it argued that such charities should not be required to provide additional information to public authorities to allow the authorities to answer FOI requests about the contracts.