UK Freedom of Information Act to be Extended


Saturday, May 16th, 2009. 7:44pm

Thumbnail Screenshot of the Freedom of Information Act
It has been reported that during a speech at a conference entitled Private Data, Open Government: Questions of Information held by the Information Commissioners’ office on 13 May 2009 Justice Minister Michael Wills announced that there will be an expansion of the number of institutions to which the Freedom of Information Act applies.

I would like to see the Association of Chief Police Officers, a private company, become subject to the act. It is incredible that so many policies and guidance which affect UK policing are not available to the public. I have personally been asking for the release of ACPO’s TASER Trial Evaluation report which has been cited by the Home Office, and my local police force as part of their evidence that TASERs are safe enough to be deployed to non-firearms police. Neither ACPO or the Metropolitan Police will release the report to me. Many other areas of policing are also strongly influenced by secret ACPO guidance. ACPO currently claims to voluntarily comply with aspects of the act, though it in my experience it has failed to meet the commitment it has made on a voluntary basis.

Another set of organisations I would like to see subject to the act include companies, or associations, set up by public bodies. If a company is wholly owned by a public body eg. a local council or a government body it is already subject to the act, however if two councils each own half a company it would not be subject to the act. I would like to see all companies substantially owned by public authorities become subject to the act. (I would set “substantial” at such a level as to avoid including organisations in which a public authority had merely invested as a minority (<1%) shareholder). In Cambridge I think this ought include the new City Centre management organisation "Love Cambridge" which is currently operating in much more secretive manner than was promised prior to its launch. The "National Anti-Fraud Network" set up by local councils would also be covered if organisations controlled by two or more public authorities were covered.

The Magistrates' Association is another group, which like ACPO has a major influence on the way the state in the UK operates yet it is also not subject to FOI. While the Sentencing Guidelines Council is subject to the act, the Magistrates’ Association’s own sentencing guidelines are not generally publicly accessible.

There are already provisions for those who hold data on behalf of public authorities to be subject to the FOI Act. It states: “For the purposes of this Act, information is held by a public authority if it is held by another person on behalf of the authority”. There is a need in my view to more explicitly identify these individuals and organisations and what information they hold.

A consultation paper from the Justice Department included consideration of many groups of organisations which it would appear sensible to make subject to the FOI act. These included all publicly funded schools, organisations in receipt of significant amounts of public money, regulatory organisations essentially fulfilling the role of the state as well as those contracted to provide a state service. In the case of contractors the public authority “customer” could reasonably be expected to handle requests. ZDNet is interpreting the Minster’s remarks at the ICO conference as confirming government contractors are to be subject to the FOI act.

Locally to Cambridge, the Conservators of the River Cam are another organisation with a public role which I believe ought be subject to the act. A judgement ought be taken in respect of all such organisations which are fulfilling a public role and generally they ought be subject to FOI. The expansion of FOI might require some clarification of exemptions, or even some new exemptions for additional organisations made subject to the act. It is likely, that this expansion will not be a simple addition to of Schedule 1 which can be done by a minister alone, but an amendment of the act itsself. I hope no new restrictions which reduce the accessibility of currently accessible information are introduced.

I think it would be useful if all organisations subject to the FOI act were required by the act to publish a contact email address to which requests for information can be made. Individual independent monitoring boards * and individual courts are examples of institutions for which it can be hard to find appriopriate email addresses. There also might be an opportunity to formalise in the act some of the guidance issued by the Information Commissioner, such as the fact that an email address is considered a valid correspondence address.

The government closed a consultation on this matter in February 2008. It is expected to eventually publish its response before Parliament’s summer recess in July 2009. I have written to the Minister, Mr Wills, to make him aware of my views as expressed in this article.

7 comments/updates on “UK Freedom of Information Act to be Extended

  1. Richard Article author

    I have been sent the following response:

    Dear Richard,

    Thank you for your email of 16th May to Michael Wills regarding the extension of the Freedom of Information Act. Michael Wills has asked me to respond on his behalf as the policy lead in this area.

    As you’ll be aware the Prime Minister announced the public consultation to seek views on whether the Government should use the powers under Section 5 of Freedom of Information Act and extend the application of the Act to persons that perform functions of a public nature and contractors providing services that are functions of public authorities. Those responding were asked to nominate bodies they deemed suitable for coverage under the Act. The consultation closed in February 2008. More than 130 responses were received, and I can confirm that ACPO were nominated by some respondents to the consultation, and therefore have been factored in to our considerations. The Government has committed to publishing its response to the consultation by the summer.

    Section 6 of Freedom of Information Act states that any company which is wholly owned by a public authority listed by Schedule 1 or by Government, is a public authority for the purposes of the Act. This helps to ensure clarity and consistency in the application of the Act. Therefore, those bodies that are owned by two or more public authorities would be considered as suitable candidates for a section 5 order.

    Kind regards,

    Stuart

    Stuart Watts Policy Adviser Information Directorate

  2. Richard Article author

    Following the submission of an Early Day Motion on applying FOI to more publicly owned companies I have written to my MP :

    Dear Mr Howarth,

    I would like to draw your attention to an early day motion which is currently open for signatories. It seeks draw attention to the need to close a loophole in the Freedom of Information Act which means companies wholly owned by public authorities are subject to the act, but those owned jointly by two or more public authorities are not. It also addresses the related problem of a company with significant public ownership not being subject to the act.

    The EDM is no. 589
    http://tinyurl.com/edm589

    I believe it would be hard to argue this is anything other than an unintended loophole which needs closing and I would like to ask you to consider signing the motion.

    You may well be in a position to do more than simply signing the EDM – such as finding a way to get the Government’s proposed “section 5 order” (secondary legislation which is expected to add ACPO Limited, UCAS, and Network Rail to the FOI Act) debated and amended to increase its scope as it (at least nominally) passes through Parliament.

    Many housing associations and purchasing consortia would be covered by the change proposed in the EDM, as would a diverse range of organisations from the Manchester Airport Group (Publicly owned by the ten local authorities of Greater Manchester), to The Russell Group of Universities (Registered in Cambridge).

    While I would like to see the law changed more dramatically than the EDM proposes it would be a step in the right direction.

    I find it extraordinary that many organisations with substantial public responsibilities and/or significant public funding are not currently subject to the UK’s freedom of information laws. Private prisons, returning officers, the organising committee for the London Olympics, and the Cambridge City Centre Management organisation “Love-Cambridge” are just some of bodies beyond the reach of the current freedom of information law.

    Related articles:
    http://www.mysociety.org/2010/01/20/foia-loophole/
    http://www.rtaylor.co.uk/1328

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    MPs have given Liberal Democrat Tom Brake permission to bring in a bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act which is intended to:

    *Close the loophole which means the act does not cover organisations owned by two or more public bodies.
    *Introduce a time limit on consideration of the public interest test.
    *Extend the coverage of the act to include private contractors delivering high-value public sector contracts.
    *Remove the ministerial veto on FOI disclosures
    *Extend the time limit within which proceedings can be brought for the offence of deliberately altering a record to prevent the disclosure of information

    Cambridge MP Julian Huppert is one of those MPs who will help Mr Brake “prepare and bring in the bill”.

    Mr Brake’s speech introducing the bill can be read via:
    http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2010-09-07a.203.0

    We’ve been here before though, in 2007 Mr Brake tried to do the same thing then too MPs gave him permission to introduce the bill, but it never became law.

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