Andy Slaughter MP: We must extend FOI to cover private contractors providing public services
By transferring a public service to a private contractor, members of the public lose their right to properly scrutinise the service being provided – we must end these anomalies says Andy Slaughter MP.
Last summer a widely-supported Private Member’s Bill to outlaw upskirting was sabotaged by a single shout of ‘Object’, and briefly drew attention to the common practice of a handful of MPs routinely blocking such Bills, often by talking them out.
On the same day my Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill was blocked in just this way, despite having support from across the House of Commons. Indeed, the member engaged in the filibuster informed me that he actually supported it and regretted it was collateral damage to another Bill he was targeting.
Now support is growing for the Bill’s aims, inside and outside Westminster, as it seeks to bring private sector companies undertaking major public contracts within the ambit of the ground-breaking Freedom of Information Act 2000.
The devastating collapse of Carillion highlighted how dependent we have become on contractors to deliver public services from prisons to housing management. £284 billion, a third of public spending, now goes to commercial or third sector bodies for this purpose.
A host of services are contracted out by local and national Government, from meals on wheels to NHS diagnostic services. Too often these contractors fail to provide the service expected of them.
However, while public bodies that fail to provide a decent level of service can be scrutinised under the FOIA or Environmental Information Regulations 2004, the same is not true for private contractors hired to provide the same services.
If a contract doesn’t give the authority the right to obtain that information from the contractor, the public has no right to it from the authority. By transferring a public service to a private contractor, members of the public lose their right to properly scrutinise the service being provided.
This loophole has for example prevented the public finding out how often complaints about court security staff have been made and how many of them have been convicted of offences. The staff were employed by G4S but the contract does not entitle the Ministry of Justice to the information – so the public can’t get it either.
Housing Associations are also protected from scrutiny, including by their tenants and leaseholders. This gained notoriety following the Grenfell Tower fire, where it became clear that the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, which managed council housing in that borough, had a history of refusing FOI requests. Had the council not contracted the service out it would have had to comply with requests, subject to the usual exemptions in the Act.
My Bill would have ended these anomalies among others. Drafted with the expert assistance of the Campaign for Freedom of Information it aimed to bring all information held by a public service contractor about the contract’s actual or planned performance under FOI. It had the support of the main opposition parties though not the Government frontbench.
Importantly, it also coincides with the views of the Information Commissioner, who earlier this year published a detailed report ‘Outsourcing Oversight? The case for reforming access to information law’, calling for the self-same reforms but achieved through amendment of the Act itself, in what would be the biggest change to FOI in England since it passed almost 20 years ago.
So, this week I will be leading a 90-minute debate in Westminster Hall on extending FOI to cover private contractors and Housing Associations. Given the weight of expert as well as Parliamentary opinion this is an idea whose time has now come, and I hope I will hear a change a heart from the Minister.
Stranger things have happened. The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 and the Civil Partnerships Bill (soon to be enacted) all started life as Private Members’ Bills but won through on their merits with cross-party and public support. This can too.