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Freedom of Information Act

Volume 589: debated on Tuesday 16 December 2014

5. What progress he has made on expanding the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to include private companies providing public services. (906638)

The coalition Government are committed to increasing the accountability of private companies that deliver public services, including through freedom of information. As the Justice Committee recommended during its post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act, the best way in which to achieve that is to include transparency provisions in contracts. I am working to ensure that a revised code of practice and revised guidance are in place by the end of the current Parliament in March.

Transparency is at the core of the Government’s agenda, especially in the context of health. May I urge them to act more quickly, so that commercial confidentiality can no longer be used as a blanket term to obscure information to which the public should be entitled, and which would be available in the case of an equivalent public provider?

I am at one with my hon. Friend. Contracts between the Government, Government agencies or local councils and the private sector for the delivery of services on behalf of the public ought to meet at least the same standard of transparency as the Freedom of Information Act applies to contracts with public sector organisations. That is what the guidance and the new rules will say. Companies should do better than that if they can, but the public are certainly entitled to a similar amount of information. It is 10 years since we introduced the Act. We have extended it in this Parliament, and will extend it further before the end of the Parliament.

I agree with what the Minister has said about transparency, but should not the same level of transparency apply to lobbying companies which represent wealthy corporate clients, and which are trying to procure public sector contracts on behalf of those clients?

The rules about lobbying do not fall into the same category. They are dealt with by legislation, and the hon. Gentleman has been present for debates on it. We have legislated in relation to lobbying companies; the question relates to contracts for the provision of public services, and the need—about which I hope the hon. Gentleman and I agree—to ensure that the public know exactly what is going on. As a Liberal Democrat, I hope that we can extend the rules to other public companies and to private companies that are effectively public sector monopolies, such as the water companies, which are not currently covered by freedom of information.

The Government have never dissented from the principle advanced by the Justice Committee that information that would be available under freedom of information in the public sector should remain so when a service is outsourced to the private sector. While I welcome my right hon. Friend’s efforts in this direction, is he looking back at some of the older contracts to see whether that principle has been applied?

The answer is yes. My right hon. Friend and his Committee have been very clear as to the right way forward. We agree with them. There has been good practice and bad practice. The intention of the new guidance and the new code of practice is that we should monitor the situation carefully, and where bad practice follows, that should be made public so that we can name and shame those who do not deliver at least the standard that freedom of information legislation requires.

I am a bit confused. We have had one Minister answering questions on behalf of the Conservatives and now another Minister answering on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to answer this on behalf of the Government: have the Government looked at what the Public Accounts Committee said about the heavy reliance on a very small number of private sector contractors in justice, in health and anywhere they have been privatising our public services? Can we have more scrutiny? Can we have more information about who gets these contracts and how?

That question is to be put on this occasion only to the Ministry of Justice. Health issues are very important, but are for another day.

On behalf of both parties in the coalition, the answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes, we want maximum scrutiny of all those who have contracts with the public sector, and of at least as good a standard as legislation imposes on public sector authorities. The question of who gets the contracts—the PAC question—is a different question for different Ministers on a different day, but with the same commitment to openness on behalf of both parties in the coalition.

But does the Minister, who after all used to be a Liberal, agree that what he is proposing simply does not give the same rights to the public as they would have had with a public body under freedom of information legislation, and that the community rehabilitation companies this Government have set up, with the hundreds of millions of pounds of public money that is being given to them, should be subject to FOI in exactly the same terms as a public corporation, so that we can see not only how they are spending that money, but their links with others in the justice sector?

The community rehabilitation companies are part of a programme to do what the hon. Lady’s Government never did, which is to ensure that those who are in prison for a year or less come out and have support in a way that will reduce reoffending. The answer on accountability is, yes, they will be as accountable and transparent—

Yes, because those with contracts with the public sector will have an obligation, in contract, to have the same duty at least as the public sector, and if they fail, they will be held to account.