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23 June 2014 | Will Green
The Cabinet Office (CO) is to consider extending the Freedom of Information Act to cover contractors providing public services.
The CO said a new code of practice covering FOI would be issued in the autumn and “its success will be reviewed and agreed across the government where it relates to contractors”.
“If necessary the CO will consider whether other changes (including the formal extension of the Freedom of Information Act) might be needed,” said the CO.
The measure is part of the CO’s response to recommendations from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in its report Contracting out public services to the private sector, which called for the FOI provisions to be included in contracts with private providers.
“Where public services are delivered by external providers, the government expects the contractors to assist public authorities fully in meeting the current obligations of the Freedom of Information Act,” the CO said.
“In future, the government is keen to see as much disclosure of performance information as possible under the contracts. To test how best to achieve this, the government will work with the CBI to agree key principles for greater transparency by autumn 2014.”
Responding to PAC concerns around the level of competition in the market, the CO also said that under a new initiative departments would be reviewing contingency planning for “the most critical, high impact contracts to ensure that plans are in place to deliver services in the event of supplier failure and to ensure the government is protected financially”.
The CO said it would be trialling the wider use of open book accounting over the next six months to “identify the sorts of contracts and the enhanced departmental capability necessary to secure maximum benefit from open book accounting”.
However, the CO did not agree with PAC recommendations that specific expectations including transparency, treatment of service users and employees and ethics should be written into contracts.
CO minister Francis Maude said: “As part of this government's long-term economic plan we are reforming how we work with suppliers, saving taxpayers £5.4 billion for last year alone from procurement reform compared with 2009-10. We want to go further and maximise transparency, balancing this with the need not to overburden businesses particularly SMEs. That's why we will strive to improve our commercial capability, while looking at sensible steps we can take to sharpen accountability and drive greater openness.”