Campaigners Call for FOI to be Applied to Contractors

Campaigners have called for the Freedom of Information Act to be extended to cover private sector companies contracted to carry out public services.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information, whose director Maurice Frankel gave evidence at an Independent Commission on Freedom of Information  session this week, has said that the Act should be extended to cover public authority contractors.

Mr 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.”

In their evidence to the commission, Press Association editor-in-chief Peter Clifton and Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell also said the Act should be extended to cover contractors, which the News Media Association has also called for.

Mr Clifton said: “It is our view that the FOI Act has provided invaluable support for an open democracy over the past decade, and far from clipping its wings, the remit of the act should be extended to include private contractors like G4S, Serco and Capita, who receive billions of pounds of public money every year and should surely be subject to greater scrutiny.

Mr Satchwell added: “I think there are certain areas which, where FOI needs to be extended, certainly into the area where there are organisations which are acting on behalf of government and other public authorities and I came in earlier on when you were having evidence from a university – a university spends an awful lot of public money and it is dear to everyone’s hearts and the idea that they should be taken out of it just seems to me to be quite wrong.”

The CFOI cited 10 examples of information about public services which has been withheld because of a loophole in the Act:  

  • 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 CFOI 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.

This approach has been endorsed by the Information Commissioner, CFOI added, and said that the Public Accounts Committee has recommended that: “Freedom of information should be extended to private companies providing public services” 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.”