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February 6, 2015

Info chief says freedom of information obligations could be written into contracts of private companies

By Emilio Casalicchio

Talks are underway to ensure that private companies providing public services have freedom of information responsibilities written in to their contracts.

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham told a panel discussion on FoI at City University in London that he thought this would be, “the next thing coming down the track”.

He made the comments after he was asked about extensions to the FoI Act, prompting him to highlight the problem of public services ceasing to be subject to FoI if contracted out privately.

Graham gave the example of Glasgow, where one of the largest social housing stocks in the UK is no longer subject to FoI after it was outsourced to a social housing company.

He said: “The challenge is, rather than going around designating commercial companies as public authorities under the Freedom of Information Act, to come up with very clear contractual obligations that when you bid for this whole pile of money to deliver a service, freedom of information obligations come with it.”

Press Gazette understands that the Institute for Government think tank and the Confederation of British Industry are currently seeking ways of increasing the transparency of private companies undertaking public service contracts.

Elsewhere in the FoI panel discussion, the police were criticised for their lack of reform in adhering to FoI expectations.

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FoI campaigner and journalist Heather Brooke said: “The police really are behind the law on adapting to the information age.”

She said that when information is kept hidden, public interest stories can be leaked by people with political agendas.

“When it’s a shut down, suppressed, secretive system…stories still need to come out, but the way they come out is unregulated and illegitimate and with a lot of heavy spin, and I think that’s what so characterises British journalism.”

The Cabinet Office also came under attack for its slow FoI reponse times. It is now being monitored by the ICO for a second time.

Martin Rosenbaum, the executive producer at the BBC responsible for FoI requests, said: “The Cabinet Office, which at the heart of government should be setting a good example, is setting just about the worst possible example, and that I think is a big challenge for the Information Commissioner’s Office.”

The panel discussion was held to mark the publication of the book: 10 years of FOI: freedom fighting or lazy journalism? Edited by Tom Felle and John Mair.

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