Private companies to be subject to FoI law

The Freedom of Information Act will be extended to companies in the private sector doing work for the government, Justice Minister Michael Wills says
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The government is to extend the Freedom of Information Act, which allows citizens to request information on public-sector activity, to cover private-sector companies on government contracts.

Justice Minister Michael Wills told the audience at a data-protection event in London on Wednesday that the government had been consulting on the extension of the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) and would announce the results in the near future.

"We are going to announce the results [of the consultation] soon," said Wills, in response to a question about third-party government contractors. "There is going to be an extension." Currently, the law only applies to public authorities.

Wills declined to give any more details about how the act would be extended or when the consultation results would be announced. However, ZDNet UK understands the Ministry of Justice hopes to make the results available before the summer parliamentary recess, which starts on 21 July.

Right now, individuals and organisations can request information from public authorities, and companies wholly owned by public authorities, in so that the workings of government agencies is transparent. Should that request be turned down, the matter can be referred to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which deals with FoI complaints.

Graham Smith, an assistant information commissioner at the ICO, gave a cautious welcome to the news, saying that the agency is already running at full capacity in handling FoI issues.

"In principle, we welcome extending the principles of transparency to other bodies serving the public," said Smith. "We wait to see the formal outcome of the Ministry of Justice consultation. Any increase in the number of organisations subject to FoI will increase the burden on our office."

However, Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights organisation Liberty, welcomed the extension, and said that private companies such as the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) should be subject to FoI.

"The line between the public and private sectors is a dotted line," Chakrabarti told ZDNet UK. "[For example], ACPO is a private company with a huge influence over policing in this country. It is completely indefensible that ACPO is exempt from FoI."

Currently, third-party contractors and other quasi-governmental bodies are under no legal obligation to respond to FoI requests. In the case of ACPO, it is not subject to FOI, but states on its website that it is "very willing to place much of its information in the public domain". However, it adds that due to the size of the organisation it will only respond to requests for "single, clearly identified documents", submitted via email, which do not contain sensitive material.

"Other requests for information will be politely refused," states the website.

Chakrabarti said that FoI should be extended to private-sector organisations with public-sector contracts, "otherwise it's just too easy for the government to contract out of accountability and responsibility."

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