Government spurns calls for private firms to come under freedom of information law

Private companies running public services will continue to escape the full provisions of freedom of information law, the government has revealed.

In its response to the House of Commons Justice Committee's post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, published earlier this year, the government says it will continue a 'light touch' approach to private contractors.

While agreeing with the committee that there is a strong public interest in a level playing field between private and public operators, and that while transparency is of key importance, 'it is also vitally important that commercially sensitive information is adequately protected'. It agrees to 'keep this issue under review'.

'While it is important that transparency is maintained, it is also vital that regulatory burdens on business are minimized,' the response says. The government 'strongly encourages' public authorities and contractors to interpret their obligations flexibly, 'so as to provide, on a voluntary basis, information that they think the requester and the wider public may be interested in but which is additional to the bare minimum that is technically covered by an FoI request to the public authority'.

The reply reveals that the government intends to issue a revised code of practice to explain further the circumstances where it would and would not in its opinion be appropriate to share information to answer FoI requests.

The response also notes the rise in the number of FoI requests, with central government handling 11,634 in the second quarter of this year, up 5% on the same period in 2011.

However it rebuffs suggestions that charging businesses for information would reduce the workload. Such targeted charging 'would be difficult and burdensome to enforce and police', it says.

It also turns down a suggestion that requesters' names be published in disclosure logs. 'Such a move would have implications for the data protection of requesters, and there is no evidence that it would have any positive impact either on transparency or on reducing the burdens of FOIA.'

However the response says the government will look at other options to reduce the burden of complying with requests. One possibility is cutting the current cost cut-off limit from £600. It is also considering making users pay more for the cost of appeal tribunals, noting the fees paid by users of the immigration and asylum tribunal.

Overall, the response agrees with the justice committee that improved trust in government 'may not have been an entirely realistic objective' of the Freedom of Information Act. However it agrees that 'notwithstanding any negative coverage of public authorities generated as a result of FOIA, the increased openness, transparency and accountability of public authorities brought about due to FOIA have lead to significant enhancements of our democracy'.