The Freedom of Information Act could be expanded and strengthened to include private companies that perform public service duties in a new consultation underway now on the future of the Act.
Journalists from across the country have already begun suggesting firms that they want to see covered.
Gordon Brown last week announced the start of a three-month public consultation, led by Justice Secretary Jack Straw, to look into whether hundreds of companies who perform public duties – often in partnership with local and national government – should answer requests.
The consultation said: ‘Some organisations receive large amounts of taxpayers’ money to carry out functions of a public nature but are not currently subject to the act. It would seem appropriate that they be subject to the same scrutiny as public authorities within the scope of the Act”
More than 100,000 public bodies are currently covered by the Act, and under Section 5 of the Act, the Justice Secretary can expand the list by adding people or companies that provide a public function or which are publicly funded.
It is possible the Government could specify a type of company rather than name specific ones. The consultation gives the example of all security companies contracted to run prisons being covered. Companies wholly owned by local authorities are already covered.
FoI specialist Tony Collins, the executive editor of Computer Weekly magazine, welcomed the move and said he would like to see companies who supply IT equipment and services to Government departments and bodies such as Siemens and IBM come under the Act.
He said: ‘My expectation is that while they would be protective of sensitive information, such as where costs are involved, they would publish information on contracts.”
He added: ‘What seems encouraging is that there is a signal [Gordon Brown] is sending a message to the Government that the Act is important. I hope his message will be taken seriously and these changes will be carried out.”
Paul Francis, the political editor of the Kent Messenger, said that the consultation could mean councils would find it more difficult to ban journalists from discussions because of ‘financial sensitivity”.
He said: ‘What [Brown] has to realise is that most of the most work done by councils is contracted out to private suppliers. Anything that widens the scope of the Act is something I would welcome.
‘We’re not going to go back to a situation where councils are direct service providers – increasingly councils are operating arm’s length companies.”
Francis has had FoI requests to Kent County Council refused on commercial grounds – last month, he asked for details of a £1.4m broadband TV service run by production company Ten Alps on behalf of the council, but was denied. The council argued the information was ‘commercially sensitive”.
The consultation paper has outlined five possible outcomes, ranging from doing nothing to introducing a voluntary ‘code of practice’on revealing information or adding obligatory clauses to companies’ contracts.
The other options include using Section 5 to permanently bring a limited list of companies within the Act and finally to ‘progressively widen’the Act to allow for the ‘greatest possible extension”.
The public consultation ends 1 February and a list of companies to be included is expected next year.The consultation sets out nine questions on how the Act could evolve and gives journalists the chance to have their say on what they want.
To read the document in full, go to http://snipurl.com/foi_section5.
Send your responses to: Ministry of Justice, Information Rights Division, 6.16 Selbourne House, 54-60 Victoria Street, London SW1E 6QW. Or email email@example.com.