Information Commissioner Supports Extension of FOI Act

Companies which take public money to provide government services should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act, the new Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has said.

Ms Denham said she backed expanding the Freedom of Information Act to private businesses which are paid to deliver public services – a change which the News Media Association has argued for in its campaign to strengthen the FOI Act.

The NMA will be hosting a lunch for the Information Commissioner in November. 

This could see contractors being forced to disclose information such as pay scales below board level, and more data about how services are delivered, The Daily Telegraph reported.

Ms Denham said: “Private contractors above a certain threshold for a contract or doing some specific types of work could be included under the FOI Act.

“The government could do more to include private bodies that are basically doing work on behalf of the public.”

Ms Denham also said that there should be a new legal duty on public authorities to record all significant decisions, which would then allow the negotiations to be subject to FOI.

Ms Denham said: “If you’ve got FOI and you want it to work, the right records have to be created in the first place.”

Ms Denham said she supported the introduction of a “duty to document” law in the UK which would help prevent authorities evading FOI requests by trying to ensure that nothing sensitive is recorded in the first place.

She said:  “I think the principle is right. I need to understand more about the legal context in the UK to see where such a duty should rest.”

Ms Denham also told the BBC she was unhappy about potential evasion of FOI by officials by sending messages using private email.

She said: “People shouldn’t be using private email accounts to conduct government business.

“If they do, legally it’s subject to FOI – however, it frustrates the purposes of FOI from a search perspective.”

Maurice Frankel, founder of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “The government is encouraging the contracting out of public services but each new contract weakens the public’s right to know because contractors are not subject to FOI.

“It makes no sense for the public’s right to know whether a service is up to scratch to depend on who pays the relevant staff – the public authority or a contractor paid by the authority.

“Either way the public is funding the service and the FOI Act should apply. A ‘duty to document’ would help prevent authorities evading FOI requests by trying to ensure that nothing sensitive is recorded in the first place.

“It would also make it harder to argue that FOI discourages authorities from keeping proper records.”