The Freedom of Information Act is a wide-ranging piece of legislation which already covers, for example, material held by a private company on behalf of a public authority with which it has a contract. All information held by a public authority is already within the scope of the Act, including communications with third party contractors. Public authorities are also obliged to answer requests about contracts with private providers, although exemptions do exist for commercially sensitive material.
The last Labour Government consulted, in 2007, on extending Freedom of Information to a wider range of bodies carrying out functions of a public nature. In 2009 Labour decided that no expansion of Freedom of Information in relation to contractors was appropriate. It is already possible for contractual terms set with private providers to include requirements to protect the right to access information about service provision.
The Independent Commission established by the Government to review the Freedom of Information Act has now published its report. The Commission did not consider what types of bodies should be covered by the Act to be within its terms of reference, although it did express provisional views on the matter.
The Commission was clear that extending the Act directly to private companies delivering outsourced public services would be burdensome and unnecessary. However, it also said that information concerning the performance or delivery of public services under contract should be treated as being held on behalf of the contracting public authority. Considering such information in this way would bring it within the scope of the Act. Importantly, though, this was a provisional view rather than a recommendation of the Commission.
The Government has already responded to some recommendations made, and says it will carefully consider the others. It has, though, stated that it has no current plans for legislation. I look forward to the Government publishing the next Open Government Partnership national action plan later this year.