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FOI should apply to prisons and parking tickets, even if contractors hold the information, says Campaign

Information about prison attacks, penalty fares on London Overground, whistleblowing policies in the NHS and parking tickets has all been withheld under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act because this information was held by public authority contractors and not by the authorities themselves.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information is calling for the FOI Act to be extended to such information. It cites 10 examples of information about public services which has been withheld because of a loophole in the Act.

The withheld information is:

  • The number of complaints from the public against court security officers provided by G4S and the number of officers charged with offences.
  • The number of prison staff at HMP Birmingham and the number of attacks at the prison. This is also held only by G4S.
  • The ratio of prison officers to prisoners at HMP Altcourse, managed by G4S.
  • Information about rehabilitation projects at HMP Bronzefield, run by Sodexo.
  • The value of penalty fares issued on the London Overground and Docklands Light Railway by private sector inspectors.
  • The costs of bringing TV licensing prosecutions, which is held by Capita and not known to the BBC.
  • Whistleblowing policies applying to Virgin Care staff providing NHS services.
  • The numbers of parking tickets issued, then cancelled on appeal, by Islington traffic wardens offered Argos points as incentives to issue tickets by NCP Ltd.
  • How often a contractor managed council swimming pool in Southwark had been needlessly closed to the public after being 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 Campaign said that under the FOI Act, contractor-held information can normally only be obtained if the contract specifically entitles the authority to obtain the information from the contractor. But if the contract is silent, the information it is not accessible.

The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said “Information about public services provided by contractors, whether commercial bodies or charities, should be covered by FOI. The loophole in the Act, which excludes such information if the contract doesn’t refer to it, should be closed. The public’s right to know should not be arbitrarily cut off because the staff who provide the service are paid by a contractor not by the authority itself.”

This was proposed in a 10-minute rule bill introduced with all-party support by Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake a few days ago on January 19th.

The Campaign is calling for major contractors, whose work mainly involves providing public services, to be brought directly under the Act in their own right in relation to those contracts. Information held by other contractors should be available via an FOI request to the public authority, it says. This approach has been endorsed by the Information Commissioner [1].

The Public Accounts Committee has recommended that “Freedom of information should be extended to private companies providing public services” [2] and that “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” [3].

Notes:

[1] https://ico.org.uk/media/1043531/transparency-in-outsourcing-roadmap.pdf
[2] Public Accounts Committee, ‘Lessons from PFI and Other Projects’, 44th report of session 2010-12, HC 1201, 18 July 2011.
[3] Public Accounts Committee, ‘Department for Work and Pensions: the Introduction of the Work Programme’, 85th report of session 2010-12, HC 1814, 15 May 2012.

Further information:

Maurice Frankel or Katherine Gundersen 0207 324 2519

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