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Campaigners launch new push for FoI extension



Draft parliamentary bill would extend Freedom of Information Act to public service contractors and housing associations

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has stepped up its effort for swathes of hidden data on key services to be opened up to the public, with a draft of a new Freedom of Information (FoI) Bill that would extend the existing act to private contractors and housing associations.

It is now hoping that one of the backbench MPs that have won places for the private members’ ballot to submit legislation to Parliament will adopt the draft.

Both private contractors providing public services and housing associations are currently exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Campaigners have protested that the first loophole has led to crucial information being kept secret, including that on investigations into G4S security staff, whistleblowing policies in the NHS and the issuing of penalty fares on the London Overground.

Housing associations, meanwhile, have refused to release data about fire risks, eviction policies, waiting lists, the housing of asylum seekers and repossession orders prompted by the so-called ‘bedroom tax’.

Ballot winner benefits

Every year, a small number of MPs are given time to bring forward their own legislation, after securing a slot in a backbench ballot. Although most fail, some become law – including, earlier this year, a bill to extend public access to certain local audit documents.

This year, the ballot was won by Labour’s Chris Bryant, who will be given the most time for the bill he chooses. Three other Labour MPs – Steve Reed, Afzal Khan and Karen Buck – completed a clean sweep of the top four places for Labour.

Maurice Frankel (pictured), the Campaign’s director, said: “The public’s rights to information about a public service should not depend on whether it is provided by a public authority or a contractor.

“It’s absurd for these rights to vary depending on who pays the staff concerned and on the small print of every contract. The bill would ensure that contractor-held information is accessible via an FoI request to the authority.”

The Coalition Government, under David Cameron, promised to consult on extending FoI to housing associations in 2011, but failed to do so.

The issues raised by The Freedom of Information (Contractors etc) Bill would appear to have particular importance following the Grenfell House fire tragedy, in which at least 80 people died.

Child protection

A third strand of the proposed legislation would open up local safeguarding children boards to public scrutiny, also removing their exemption from FoI.

These multi-agency bodies coordinate policies for child protection, including representatives of social services, the police, the NHS, education bodies and others - yet requests for information are refused.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information argues that this denies access to data about child abuse, domestic violence, female genital mutilation and the protection of children from extremism.

Image from Campaign for Freedom of Information

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