A person stamping documents confidential. © 123RF
A person stamping documents confidential. © 123RF

Commission backs FOI extension to large private firms

2 March 2016

The UK Freedom of Information Act (FOI) should apply to private firms providing public services is the “provisional view” of a commission tasked with examining reform of the legislation.

In a report the cross-party Commission on Freedom of Information said it “felt unable to make recommendations either because they fell outside our terms of reference or because we did not receive sufficient evidence” on extending FOI to contracting firms.

Instead the commission said information about the performance of any new contract worth £5m or more per year should be treated as “being held on behalf of the contracting public authority”, meaning FOI requests made to the authority should cover information from private contracting firms.

“The commission is persuaded that there is a need for greater transparency in outsourced public services,” the report said. “But we are concerned that significant additional burdens should not be imposed on the public sector, and companies (particularly small companies) should not be discouraged from bidding for public contracts.

“In our view, extending the Act directly to private companies who deliver outsourced public services would be burdensome and unnecessary.”

In its evidence to the commission the News Media Association wrote it was a “pity that the call for evidence did not invite views on” extending FOI to private sector companies providing public services.

“The role of FOI in exposing waste and driving up standards of governance was acknowledged by the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons in 2014,” it said. “It considered FOI an important part of the solution to the poor performance and cost and deadline overruns that have plagued government contracts with companies such as G4S, Serco and Atos.”

The commission, which was established in July 2015 by the government, made 21 recommendations, seven of which the government has commented on.

The government agreed authorities should not charge for FOI requests, practice guidance should be updated and the government will only veto the inclusion of certain information in FOI requests following a decision by the information commissioner.

“The government will carefully consider the commission’s other recommendations,” Cabinet Office minister and Paymaster General Matt Hancock said in a statement to Parliament.

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