Contracts caught in freedom act

6 January 2005
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06 January 2005 | David Arminas

The recently enacted Freedom of Information Act is unclear about what public-sector purchasers can hold back from public scrutiny, according to a supply chain legal expert.

Beverley Whittaker, a partner in the company commercial department of law firm Stevens & Bolton, told SM: "The act is nebulous on these counts and so there will probably have to be some cases heard to establish what is and is not acceptable for keeping back from the public."

The act, which came into force on 1 January, means that anyone can officially request information from any public-sector organisation concerning the work that it does, including the contracts that it has signed, with which supplier and under what terms.

Authorities, which include police forces, NHS trusts and schools, have 20 days to either supply the information or give valid reasons from a list of exemption categories why it is not to be disclosed.

But Whittaker said exemptions for confidentiality and commercial sensitivity were not specific.

"It will likely be a matter of judgment in tribunals and courts. It could turn out to be like working in a goldfish bowl."

Buyers would have to assess if there was a valid reason why some information would be exempt from publication.

The worst-case scenarios for purchasers are if they are seen to be diverging from best practice in areas of tendering or if there is a whiff of corruption, she added.

News focus: Procurement's tricky balancing act


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