On Friday Andy Slaughter MP will present his private member’s Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill to the commons for its second reading, which would make private contractors running public services subject to freedom of information requests.
Under the current Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, brought in by Blair’s government in 2000, individuals or groups can submit requests for access to information held by public authorities. Slaughter cites numerous “anomalies” where private companies are “doing exactly the same role [as a public body], whether running a prison, or a contract within a public service but because the information is held by a private contractor, neither the public authority or the general public may have access to it.”
“The big anomaly,” he argues, “is housing associations, because housing associations are social landlords. They operate in much the same way as local authorities do.” Despite receiving the same service, residents of housing associations can’t access information regarding the general management of their homes, including fire risk assessments and maintenance contracts. “You can’t get it because you happen to be a Notting Hill Housing tenant living next door to an identical council tenant.”
As this information is about public services, the bill “shouldn’t really be controversial,” argues Slaughter, but he believes it is essential that the perimeters of the FOI Act are reviewed. “This is a way of scrutinising things that go wrong which can have severe implications, not just for the quality of people’s lives but the risk to people’s lives. That’s what we’ve seen at Grenfell.”
The government are arguing against the bill on the basis that the ability already exists within the act to extend FOI powers with a case-by-case system. “The answer to that,” Slaughter says, “is there’s no harm in making that clear and more specific, and actually they haven’t extended it to other services without two exceptions.”
The circumstances, he argues, have also changed, with a huge increase in private contractors running public contracts. “There’s such a significant development even since the act was first envisaged 20 years ago that I think you ought to revisit [the act] in any case.”