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MoJ review of public service FoI requests due soon

Neil Merrett Published 07 January 2015

MoJ yet to finalise timeline for a consultation on revising transparency obligations for private contractors delivering government services


The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said it will 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" - though an exact timeline remains elusive.

After pledging last September to consider revising private contractor guidelines under the ten year old FoI Act, no date has yet been scheduled by the MoJ to discuss changes designed to "promote greater openness" in the government's agreements for outsourced public services.

The ministry said the exact scope of potential changes to the information available through FoI requests, such as whether they would relate exclusively to central government contracts or wider public sector agreements, was presently "under consideration" and would be finalised within the revised code itself.

Commitments to expand the types of information available though the FoI Act follows calls from groups like the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) for greater transparency over the specific details of public sector agreements with private contractors.

Since launching in January 2005, some 400,000 FoI requests have been filed, with justice minister Simon Hughes saying the government was committed to further transparency going forward.

The government is presently planning to extend the scope of the FoI Act to provide information about Network Rail this year and has already extended the legislation to cover academies and bodies such as the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Financial Ombudsman Service.

"We have extended FOI to more than 100 new organisations as well as making changes to allow the earlier release of historic central government records," said Simon Hughes.

"We are not stopping there and as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the FOI Act we look forward to making government even more transparent by publishing more information and further extending the reach of FOI."

Last year, data regulator the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) said it welcomed the government's proposals to improve the transparency of outsourced contracts, yet called for more action to clear up potential vagaries over what information is available about its agreements.

"As the regulator of the FOI Act, we want more certainty about what information is in scope of a FOI Act request and what isn't. That would help contractors, public authorities and requesters," ICO senior policy officer Carl Wiper said at the time.

Under current legislation, information held by a public authority or an organisation acting on its behalf is accessible under the FOI Act, according to the ICO.

Wiper said that certain information held by a contractor providing outsourced services would also be held on behalf of a public authority and was therefore potentially accessible through an FoI request - barring some exemptions such as commercially sensitive information.

"Where public money is being spent we think there should be transparency and accountability. What we want to see is more certainty about what information the public have a right to ask for," he added. "If the effect of outsourcing is that some information is no longer in scope of FOIA, then let's be honest and recognise that."

Related articles:

Government yet to commit to open contract standard

The Met mulls "significant change" to its FoI policy

Government wants outsourcing openness with revised FoI code

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