NMA: Private Contractors ‘Unacceptable Loophole’ in FOI

The contracting out of public services to private contractors creates an “unacceptable loophole” in the Freedom of Information regime leading to vital information about public services being withheld from scrutiny, the News Media Association has said.

In a letter to Labour MP Louise Haigh, Shadow Policing And Crime Minister, to express support for her Ten Minute Rule Motion yesterday extend the FOI regime to cover companies contracted to carry out work for the public sector, the NMA said the amendment would “remedy the incoherence and injustice created by this loophole.”

Moving the motion yesterday Ms Haigh said: “Extending the Act into areas that used to be overseen by the state and were therefore subject to FOI is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. When institutions or private providers are permitted to withhold information, bad decisions are made and mistrust builds among communities.

“The Grenfell Tower fire has highlighted the desperate need for public access to information held by the providers of social housing. Housing associations, which own or run many former council estates, are completely outside the scope of the Act, and residents are denied information that they have a right to know.

“Ultimately, few could disagree with the need for parity for public and private providers when they are delivering public services. Whether it is Concentrix, Carillion or Cygnet, why would we hold private providers to a lower standard of transparency and accountability than their public competitors?

“If sunlight really is the best disinfectant, here today is the chance to clean up the murky world of our outsourced state, to drive up standards, to improve trust and to ensure that it is always citizens, not shareholders, who are the ultimate authority for our public services.”

In the letter to Ms Haigh earlier this week, NMA legal, policy and regulatory affairs advisor Kerry Nicholson said: “Information about the number of attacks in privately run prisons, whistleblowing policies of NHS contractors, incentives to issue parking tickets and the cost of TV licensing prosecutions has all been withheld from the public because of this indefensible loophole.” 

“The need for public access to information about public services does not change when a duty, or part of a duty, is contracted to a private party.”

“This amendment would remedy the incoherence and injustice created by this loophole, and allow public authorities to be held accountable for how they fulfil their obligations, whether or not they contract a private entity to carry out work on their behalf.”

Last week, following the collapse of Carillion, Andy Slaughter MP called upon MPs for support for his private Member’s Bill which would extend FOI to cover private contractors. 

The NMA has campaigned for many years to defend the FOI Act from restrictions and for its extension.