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Limited Freedom of Information

Limited Freedom of Information

🕔11.Oct 2013

In light of the privatisation of Royal Mail, Chamberlain Files presents Jilly Bermingham’s thoughts on the limitations of the Freedom of Information Act in privately run public services.

When the Freedom of Information Act was introduced in 2000 it was to ensure transparency of Government and the opportunity for citizens to have answers to their questions, a public right of access to information held by public authorities, as outlined in the Labour Party Manifesto of the 1997 General Election.

However, sadly, there is a flaw in the legislation which no-one could have foreseen when it was initially drawn up all those years ago.

Amazingly the flaw comes despite the genuine purpose of the legislation and because of its purpose. Set up to scrutinise how public money is spent, now with the increasing number of private companies being awarded contracts, this is becoming all the more difficult. The fact is a Freedom of Information Request cannot be made against a private company, even though they are using public money.

Private companies need to make a profit that will satisfy shareholders and balance their books, and therefore they start from a completely different premise to a non profit Government Department. So inevitably their reasoning and practices are different but we as citizens will not be able to request an explanation when there are questions as to why nothing seems to be to the benefit of the end user – us. Do I need to mention G4s and the Olympic Games?

There are committees and Select Committees who are tasked to scrutinise a Department and all aspects of its decisions throughout National and Local Government but we are talking much more specifically about the right of the individual to feel empowered enough to ask. Sadly this is what is being gradually eroded.

I am not crying out to re-nationalise all privatised areas (although in an ideal world I wish we could – but  those are thoughts for another day) it is just that there really has to be a line to be drawn now. How much more privatisation will it take before there are no departments ever subject to a Freedom of Information Request because the majority of it is privatised?

Ministers should review this legislation and make it relevant for today, maybe we can then keep a transparent Government.

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