MPs urged to extend FOI regime to public sector suppliers

Out-Law News | 07 Jul 2014 | 3:10 pm | 1 min. read

MPs who have won the right to propose new private members' bills in the next UK parliamentary session have been urged to propose the extension of freedom of information (FOI) rules to public sector suppliers.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFI) said it had written to MPs to lobby for the introduction of a new Freedom of Information (Contractor Information) Bill in a bid to "ensure that all information held by a contractor about a public service contract is subject to the FOI Act, regardless of what the contract itself says".

Currently, public sector suppliers can only be required to disclose information in line with FOI rules if they are deemed to hold information on behalf of a public authority.

The CFI said that applying the FOI rules to public sector suppliers more generally could allow the public access to "significant information". It said that existing exemptions that apply to disclosure under the FOI Act (FOIA) would help "protect genuinely sensitive information" from being exposed.

"Each new outsourcing contract reduces the public’s right to know," the CFI's director Maurice Frankel said. "Information that is essential for accountability may be kept secret simply because the authority didn’t expect to need it and didn’t specify it in the contract. This bill would close a major loophole that is weakening the FOI Act day by day."

Earlier this year, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) said that difficulties in determining whether suppliers 'hold' information sought in an FOI request mean that information the public has a right to obtain may not be disclosed. It said standardised contractual terms between public bodies and their private sector suppliers could help clarify uncertainties over whether the suppliers are subject to the FOI regime.

"We need standard contract terms that are more explicit about who ‘holds’ information in FOIA terms," Steve Wood, head of policy delivery at the ICO, said in a blog. "This is not the same as specifying that certain information ‘must’ be released in response to a FOIA request – each request has to be considered on its merits and exemptions may apply – but it would give clarity on where the public authority has a right of access to certain information, or whether information reverts to the authority on termination of the contract."