Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s Information Commissioner, wants to solve the problem of transparency being lost when public bodies outsource contracts for their services to private companies.
In a speech celebrating 250 years of Freedom of Information laws around the world Denham said one of the biggest challenges going forward is to stop the requirements of FOI from “melt[ing] away” when a contract takes over.
“If a council runs a swimming pool, information about the pool falls clearly under FOI legislation,” Denham said in the speech. “If a council pays a company to run that pool why should the same information not be available?”
The need for transparency, she said, should not just be limited to financial information: a member of a board of directors running a public service, instead of a council member, should still be accountable.
“Health services, justice agencies, educational establishments all provide public services and their legal structure, which is irrelevant to the public, should not exempt them from the need for transparency.”
The solution to this? “We should extend the right to know about public services so that it is independent of the service provider,” according to the Commissioner, this should be the case whether they are “public, private or third sector organisations”.
At the event, Denham said the ICO is producing a report for Parliament that will look at outsourcing and transparency. “I will place the ball – and my evidence – squarely in Parliament’s court,” she said.
The view is one that will provoke strong views with those within government and also third sector organisations. Former Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock, in March, said the issue is “complex” and he could not promise changes would happen.
The minister’s comments came after a major review on FOI said it would be “burdensome and unnecessary” to directly extend FOI to private companies delivering private services.
“But we are persuaded that information concerning the performance or delivery of public services under contract should be treated as being held on behalf of the contracting public authority,” the report of the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information said.
“This would make such information available to requestors who make requests to the contracting public authority.”