Lords Call For FOI Extension To Cover Private Contractors

Peers have called for the extension of the Freedom of Information Act to cover private contractors performing public services, quoting the News Media Association’s support for reform of the legislation in a parliamentary debate.

Tabling a question for short debate, Lord McNally, Lib Dem, said: “The ICO approach is supported by the News Media Association, which represents the national, regional and local media industries.

“In a brief sent for this debate, the association says: ‘We welcome the debate and hope that the Government will bring forward measures for extension of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to contractors performing public functions.’”

Quoting from an ICO paper ‘Outsourcing Oversight? The Case for Reform and Reforming Access to Information Law,’ Lord McNally said the Government spends £284 billion a year—almost a third of their total expenditure—on external suppliers.

He added: “The ICO makes a number of recommendations about reform of the law. It includes making greater use of existing powers under the Freedom of Information Act to designate a greater number of other organisations exercising functions of a public nature and amending the law to give a clear legislative steer, with the clear aim of enabling greater access and transparency.”

In the short debate on Tuesday, Labour and the Lib Dems peers cited examples of problems with private contractors, such as the collapse of Carillion last year and the Grenfell Tower fire, arguing that greater transparency would make these disasters less likely to occur.

Praising media outlets including The Yorkshire Post, Lord Scriven, Lib Dem, gave the example of scrutiny of expenses and the culture at tourist board Welcome to Yorkshire as an example of the need for reform of the FOI Act.

He said: “This has been going on for years. If we had had freedom of information, we would have been able to get this information many years ago, some of the excesses probably would not have happened, some of the people who carried out these excesses would have been sacked or got rid of earlier, and there would have been proper procedures, policies, spending and procurement in this organisation.”

The NMA has campaigned for an extension of the FOI Act to cover private companies providing public services, arguing that transparency should apply to contractors as well as public bodies. 

Lord Tunnicliffe, Labour, said: “It is clear that outsourcing and contracting out public functions to the private sector cannot continue without reform. The constant failures coming from major outsourcing firms cannot be allowed to continue. It is time to give the same tools to the public to hold private companies to similar standards as government departments when carrying out important public functions.”

Lord Shipley, Lib Dem, added: “The Government need to amend the law. Information of important benefit to the general public should not be withheld from them when it would be available if the public authority had not contracted out the work. The Burns report of 2016 concluded that this was the right approach.

“The Committee on Standards in Public Life has recently concluded likewise and the Information Commissioner, as we have heard from my noble friend Lord McNally, has called for similar changes. So, the question must be: what is the hold-up?”