Information is knowledge and information is power. That is why laws that give people access to information are so important.
The UK’s Freedom of Information Act and its sister law, the Environmental Information Regulations, allow citizens to scrutinise decisions and actions taken by public authorities at all levels — from government departments and local councils to police, schools and hospitals. Having the legal right to request information holds public authorities to account, encourages them to make better decisions and, ultimately, provide better services.
But now our laws are out of date. As it stands, people can request information from public authorities and publicly owned bodies. But what if a public service is provided by someone else?
In the modern age, public services are delivered in many ways and by many organisations. Our infrastructure is built by private contractors with public money. Our leisure centres and prisons are often run by private companies. Social housing services are delivered by housing associations and charities run safeguarding services for children. Except in some complicated scenarios, none of these organisations is subject to scrutiny under information laws. So none is accountable to the public.
My job is to uphold information and privacy rights on behalf of the public. And it requires me to ensure that the legislation remains relevant. My office handles complaints from people unable to get answers to FOI or EIR requests they have raised with public authorities. We rule on whether an organisation is right to withhold information and can order its release if we find a requester is legally entitled to it.
But sometimes my hands are tied. These real examples of requests are all in the public interest: whether potentially toxic pipes were used for the water supply to a particular property; the number of properties adapted for disabled people; the number of repossession orders served since the “bedroom tax” came into force; the value of penalty fares issued by private inspectors on the London Overground; the number of complaints against court security officers and the number of officers charged with offences. But the organisations that hold this information fall outside the scope of legislation. They are not legally bound to provide answers. This is a serious gap in the public’s right to know.
I am laying a report before parliament that calls for urgent action from the government to extend FOIA and EIR to include outsourced organisations and those providing public functions. Progress in doing so has been too slow. Two high-profile incidents have sharpened my resolve. The tragedy at Grenfell Tower in 2017 highlighted concerns over access to fire safety information; housing associations fall outside the law. And the collapse of construction company Carillion a year ago — the company was responsible for more than 420 public sector contracts, many of which not subject to public scrutiny.
My report recommends that government should make greater use of the powers that already exist in FOI legislation. Legislators clearly intended information rights to adapt to changes in public sector delivery because the law includes a provision to bring contractors into their scope. That provision has never been used. A similar power relating to organisations that deliver public functions and services has been used only a handful of times.
We are falling behind internationally. When laws on access to information were passed in 2000 in England and Wales they were considered progressive and ambitious. But we now lag behind Scotland — which has its own law — and countries like Mexico, Hungary and South Africa, where the law includes public services delivered by other organisations. Strong laws create transparency and accountability and a knowledgeable and engaged citizenry. We must catch up.
The writer is the UK’s information commissioner
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