'Private sector should be subject to freedom of information laws'
15 March 2012
Members of the public should be able to force private firms to release information under freedom of information (FoI) laws when these companies are working for the public sector, an influential MP has said.
Margaret Hodge, who chairs the Commons Public Accounts Committee, a cross-party group which scrutinises government spending, said there was a "massive range of bodies providing services from the taxpayers' pound", adding that accountability must be fit for purpose.
"We ought to amend the Freedom of Information Act so that private companies are compelled to share with the public information on contracts which are funded with public money," she said.
"We need to be able to follow the taxpayers' pound."
Her statement came shortly after Information Commissioner Christopher Graham defended the use of freedom of information in the public sector.
According to reports, Graham said claims from some Whitehall chiefs that FoI could hinder advice given to ministers and leave "no hiding place" were "greatly overdone" and that they could even be damaging if civil servants subsequently adopted bad behaviour.
He told MPs: "It suggests to more junior staff that it would be unwise to keep a proper record and that it's acceptable to use your Gmail account."
Former Cabinet Secretary Lord O'Donnell and Department of Health permanent secretary Una O'Brien have recently argued that civil servants feared giving confidential advice to ministers if there was a risk it could end up in the public domain through an FoI request.
But Graham said predictions over FoI having such a "chilling effect" were "greatly overdone and to some extent, self-fulfilling," the BBC reported.
David Cameron also recently warned that FoI "furs up" government, instead favouring open data as a means to fulfilling government transparency obligations.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has also criticised the Freedom of Information Act, which was introduced by his government. In his autobiography Blair said he regretted introducing the law, admitting he was an "idiot" to do so.
In recent days the government was ordered to release a risk assessment of its controversial Health and Social Care Bill under Freedom of Information laws after losing in its appeal to an information rights tribunal.
Although exemptions exist, FoI laws give the public the right to request information from government bodies. Authorities are required by law to respond to requests within 20 working days and there is currently no charge for asking for such information.