We all rely on public services and, not surprisingly, we all ask questions about how they are delivered.
How many complaints have been made against courts security officers? What is the value of penalty fares issued by private inspectors on the London Underground? How many repossession orders have been served since the ‘bedroom tax’ came into force? What is the number of properties adapted for disabled people in a particular area? Is there a figure on the potential toxicity of water supply to a property?
These are all examples of information that people have requested about the way public services are delivered. On each occasion, their requests were denied because the organisation responsible is not covered by current Freedom of Information (FOI) laws.
How is this possible? Over the past thirty years, the public sector has changed dramatically, with the Government now spending £284 billion - almost a third of its total expenditure - on external suppliers. Public services are delivered by a complex web of organisations including large contractors, SMEs, charities, housing associations and academy chains. But while public service delivery has changed, the law has not kept up.The Government should act on the Information Commissioner’s call to update the law Yesterday, the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who is responsible for upholding information rights on the public’s behalf, published a report and laid a motion before Parliament calling for FOI laws to be extended to include outsourced organisations and those providing public functions. "Our laws are out of date" she said. Too often the hands of the watchdog are tied leaving "a serious gap in the public’s right to know"’.
While many of the questions that people want answered relate to day-to-day running of services, in some cases the issue is more urgent – and the Commissioner highlighted two examples that prompted her intervention: the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the collapse of Carillion.
The fire at Grenfell raised serious concerns about the public’s access to fire safety information. The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation refused requests to release both a highly critical independent fire safety report about the tower written 12 years before the fire and the minutes from crucial refurbishment meetings, stating they were not subject to FOI. And seven weeks after the fire, residents of similar tower blocks were still struggling to access their own fire safety records.
Meanwhile the collapse of Carillion – one of government’s largest suppliers with contracts affecting schools, hospitals and large infrastructure projects – highlighted the lack of information available about government outsourcers. Our own research found that when Carillion went into liquidation it was only possible to find 28 award notices on the Government’s Contracts Finder, despite the company having an estimated 450 public sector contracts, meaning it is very difficult for citizens to find out who the Government is contracting to and on what.
So extending the law is necessary to ensure all public services, whoever they are delivered by, are accountable – and allow people to raise concerns if they are not being delivered effectively.The arguments against extending FOI laws are weak The most common argument against extending information access laws is that it will result in an explosion of red tape, with small businesses and charities forced to spend time and resources responding to requests.
But this is a weak argument. Many of the organisations under question – from big government suppliers to Multi-Academy Trusts – are sufficiently large that providing information would pose little problem. Serco has 50,000 staff worldwide. The Academies Enterprise Trust covers over 60 schools. Indeed, the government’s biggest outsourcing companies told the Public Accounts Committee they were perfectly content with FOI laws being extended to cover them. For smaller companies and charities, the Information Commissioner is proposing further consultation to devise a sensible threshold for exemption.
And the UK has already fallen behind in this area. In most European countries private companies are covered. In 2016, following a consultation, the Scottish government extended FOI laws to cover private prisons, providers of secure accommodation for children, grant-aided schools, and private companies providing public healthcare.The Government should not delay action on FOI extension any further From Grenfell to Carillion, the absence of proper information about how public money is spent and how public services are delivered erodes public trust in government – at a time when it’s sorely needed.
Extending information access laws alone will not fill the information gap. It must be coupled with much more proactive disclosure of information – where government is also doing poorly, as we showed with our research into the availability of procurement data.
But the Government must now take the opportunity presented by the ICO’s report to reform access to information. The Commissioner’s decision to intervene directly and lay a report before parliament – the first such action by the ICO in ten years – reflects the urgency of the situation and the fact that softer calls have been previously ignored. There will, inevitably, be another crisis in public service delivery, and the public will demand to know why they have been let down. The Government must act now to ensure that they are not met by laws which are both inadequate and outdated.