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Expansion of FoI to cover outsourcing remains under “review”

Neil Merrett Published 10 March 2015

Minister of state for justice pledges to have all public service delivery contracts subject to FoI law; however no formal coalition agreement has been reached as yet

 

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said plans to expand how the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act applies to outsourced public services are being kept "under review" following pledges by a senior minister to try and open up information on all taxpayer-funded contracts.

A spokesperson for the MoJ said the ministry "recognised the case for extending the [FoI] Act further, especially to more bodies performing public functions". However, no timeline has been made available for when these extensions may happen.

The ministry said in January that it expected to begin consultations on a revised code of practice for Freedom of Information (FoI) requests concerning the outsourcing of public services to private companies "in the near future".

As the department responsible for leading FoI policy across government, the MoJ added that the coalition government had already extended these regulations to over 100 organisations over its lifetime, with transport authority body Network Rail being included from this month.

The Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) are among a number of organisations over the last year calling for greater transparency over the specific details of public sector agreements with private contractors.

Speaking in Manchester last week at the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) 2015 Data Protection Practitioner Conference, Simon Hughes, the minister of state for justice and civil liberties, said he was determined to open up public access to information for which there is an absolute right to see.

"I believe there is further to go. I want to see all public service delivered by the private sector put on an equal footing and subject to FOI - they are, after all, being paid for by the taxpayer," he said. "There is not coalition agreement on that as of today, but I will continue to press for it until there is."

Considering this pledge, Hughes said he was particularly pleased to pass through parliament the extension of the FoI Act to provide the public with an enforceable right to access wide ranging information on the operation and maintenance of the UK's rail infrastructure.

Data commissioner Christopher Graham earlier this year argued that FoI access must remain a vital part of the government's transparency initiatives alongside its commitments to open data and proactive publication.

The comments were made in response to claims by Cabinet Office minister Frances Maude about potentially moving away from the practice of handling FoI requests in favour of solely using a proactive model of publication for everything deemed "appropriate".

Graham queried this position, expressing concern over who should decided what information was appropriate for the public.

"Is proactive disclosure on its own enough? I don't think so," he said at the time.

Related articles:

ICO chief defends FoI access

MoJ review of public service FoI requests due soon

The Met mulls "significant change" to its FoI policy

Government wants outsourcing openness with revised FoI code







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