Question for Short Debate
My Lords, the last days of a dying Administration might seem to be a strange time to be looking for a clear statement from government about plans to reform and update the FoI Act 2000. I have enormous respect for the Minister and have long advocated that the House publish a collection of his bon mots from the Dispatch Box, which leave the House amused but none the wiser—the greatest of all Dispatch Box skills. In the past few years, we have witnessed not so much open government as open warfare from this dysfunctional Administration. I am not expecting any new announcements this evening. I consider this debate to be simply a “billet doux” to the incoming Administration, letting them know that if there is no legislation announced for the next Session, I will seek to introduce a Private Member’s Bill to update and improve the FoI Act 2000.
The initial aim of the Act was to increase openness and transparency, increase accountability, improve decision-making, increase public understanding of the process of decision-making in government, increase participation in that decision-making and increase public trust in government. It would be a brave man or woman who, as we approach the 20th anniversary of the Act coming into force, would claim that all those objectives have been achieved. However, as I believe my noble friends Lord Shipley and Lord Scriven will illustrate, the need for a robust and effective FoI Act is more necessary and the need for its expansion and update more urgent than ever.
The reasons are twofold. First, we live in an entirely different world of information since the Act became law in 2000. We now live in the age of the internet, the data revolution, the fourth industrial revolution and the forward march of artificial intelligence. These revolutions through which we are living have provided more access to information and opinion than at any time in human history, but they have also thrown up profound concerns about personal privacy and the capacity of government and other organisations to amass information about the individual far beyond anything dreamt up in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four dystopia.
Secondly, over the past 20 years under successive Governments, there has been a steady move of responsibility for a wide range of services and activities out of the public sector to private sector and NGO delivery. This has blunted the effect of the FoI, and important services sectors have moved beyond its reach.
At this moment of double jeopardy, we are fortunate in having an Information Commissioner who has shown admirable leadership and strength in response to those challenges. In January this year, Elizabeth Denham exercised her right to communicate directly to Parliament to send what I consider a landmark paper entitled Outsourcing Oversight? The Case for Reforming Access to Information Law. The message she sent was clear and unequivocal:
“In the modern age, public services are delivered in many ways by many organisations. Yet not all of these organisations are subject to access to information laws. Maintaining accountable and transparent services is a challenge because the current regime does not always extend beyond public authorities and, when it does, it is complicated. The laws are no longer fit for purpose”.
That was her message to Parliament:
“The laws are no longer fit for purpose”.
That submission of more than 150 pages, submitted to Parliament in January, produced a response from Chloe Smith MP, then Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office, of two and a half pages, which even the kindest would say would say was underwhelming in its enthusiasm for reform. Let me give a few quotes to let the House have a flavour of that response:
“A number of those recommendations would require legislation and so will require careful and detailed consideration by the Government”.
Students of Whitehall vocabulary will know that “careful and detailed consideration by government” is the antithesis of Churchill’s “action this day” dictum.
I quote again from Chloe Smith’s response:
“we are concerned about a disproportionate burden, because we do not want to discourage smaller organisations from serving the public”—
an admirable concern which excuses lack of action in the guise of protecting charities and SMEs. However, in a letter to me, Chris Walker, public affairs manager of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, writes:
“NCVO would like to see greater transparency within government contracting, and as such, in principle, we would welcome the extension of FOI”.
It is true that he mentions a number of measures to protect charities from being overburdened, which can then be taken into account in drafting legislation. I found the NCVO letter helpful and constructive. It convinces me that the time is right for the fresh legislation called for by the Information Commissioner.
In her insipid letter to the information Commissioner of 24 April, Chloe Smith said that the Government will,
“focus on the implementation of the policies already in place”.
That is despite the commissioner’s clear message to Parliament that the laws are no longer fit for purpose.
The ICO makes a number of recommendations about reform of the law. It includes making greater use of existing powers under the Freedom of Information Act to designate a greater number of other organisations exercising functions of a public nature and amending the law to give a clear legislative steer, with the clear aim of enabling greater access and transparency.
As the ICO’s paper points out, full transparency matters, because the Government spends £284 billion a year—almost a third of their total expenditure—on external suppliers. It also matters because recent events, such as at Grenfell Tower in 2017, have raised serious concern about the public’s access to information about the delivery of social housing—a matter which I know will be developed by my noble friend Lord Shipley. The collapse of Carillion in 2018 highlighted the limits of information available, or not available, about outsourced public services and gave a stark warning to those who claim that FoI concerns can be better met by conditions written into contracts than clear rules written into legislation.
The ICO approach is supported by the News Media Association, which represents the national, regional and local media industries. In a brief sent for this debate, the association says:
“We welcome the debate and hope that the Government will bring forward measures for extension of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to contractors performing public functions”.
The great gift of 19th-century liberalism to the present day is a Civil Service politically neutral and chosen and promoted on merit—the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms. It is ironic that, 20 years after it was claimed that FoI would undermine the tradition of being willing to speak truth to power, the real threat to these principles is not FoI but politicians who demand only unquestioning obedience to their ideological fixations. In these circumstances, freedom of information becomes a shield for, not a threat to, the integrity of our public services and those who work to serve us and is a bulwark for us all against the abuse of power.
My Lords, I welcome this timely debate from my noble friend Lord McNally. It is timely for those of us who live in Yorkshire after the recent revelations that have come out from Welcome to Yorkshire, the tourist board, about spending, expenses and a toxic culture that has been going on for many years. Because this is now a private company that predominantly carries out a public function, it is not subject to freedom of information and the taxpayers of Yorkshire have not been able to get to the unfolding issues as fast as possible.
Until 2009 this organisation was a public body, the Yorkshire Tourist Board. In 2009 the new chief executive, Gary Verity, decided to make it a private limited company, and therefore completely and totally out of scope of freedom of information and all other public sector rules, driven by private company legislation and subject to its shareholders. In the last 10 years, this body has had over £10 million of public money. It basically gets half its funding from the public sector and the rest from small to medium-sized businesses. This is big business. Over the last four years, it has got £596,000 from East Riding council, £438,000 from North Yorkshire County Council, over £800,000 from Leeds City Council, £250,000 from my own city of Sheffield and £193,000 from Barnsley. In reality, it does not get this money from the council but from the council tax payers, who have a right to know who is spending their money and how.
Due to the lack of freedom of information, no one really knows what has been going on under the auspices of Welcome to Yorkshire. Many have said it has been a successful organisation in bringing the Tour de France and the Tour de Yorkshire there. However, the ends have to justify the means—and the means are quite breathtaking. There have been major excesses and scandals that nobody has been able to get to for years and years, starting back in 2012, because every time we asked for information we were told it was a private company and nothing to do with us.
These excesses include luxury spending on helicopters; hotels at £600 a night at the Connaught; lavish meals during which the chief executive, Gary Verity, and the former chair, Ron McMillan, played games involving who could get the most expensive wine on expenses; chauffeur-driven cars to take people a few miles; shooting expeditions—seen as networking—at £2,500 a day; and expeditions around the country. Only yesterday it came to my attention via a former employee that there is a possibility that a flat in Leeds, which was either purchased or had its mortgage or rent payments paid, was given to Gary Verity for him to stay there, and that that flat is now rented out and the former chief executive claimed hotel expenses while in Leeds.
This is why freedom of information is important. Only yesterday I asked the interim chair, Keith Stewart, to clarify this and got an email refusing to do so, saying that it had given me the courtesy of answering one question about expenses yesterday and was going to answer no more. Serious allegations are made about the misuse of public money, and nobody can get to them. That board has closed ranks and is not giving taxpayers the views they need.
I want to praise a number of people. A few staff have put their heads above the parapet: Annie Drew, a former PA to Gary Verity; Helen Long, also a former PA; and Dee Marshall, a former executive director. I also praise some hard-working journalists: David Collins of the Sunday Times, who exposed some of this stuff; Sheron Boyle of Sheron Boyle Media and ITV; David Rhodes of the BBC; and Chris Burn of the Yorkshire Post. This has been going on for years. If we had had freedom of information, we would have been able to get this information many years ago, some of the excesses probably would not have happened, some of the people who carried out these excesses would have been sacked or got rid of earlier, and there would have been proper procedures, policies, spending and procurement in this organisation.
We are told this first came to light in 2012, three years after this organisation became a private limited company, when a previous chair, Clare Morrow, was alerted to a bullying issue by a former PA to Gary Verity. Despite serious allegations being made, this was brushed under the carpet, a £10,000 payout was made and an NDA signed. There was a culture of bullying and toxicity. In the last 11 years, we now find out, Gary Verity has had 20 personal assistants. We do not know how much has been paid out on the NDAs because we are not allowed to get that information. When we ask for it under freedom of information, we are told it is not subject to FoI because, even though the organisation has spent over £10 million of public money, it is not a public body.
My Lords, that is a good question. Some did and some have now suspended payments to those organisations. This organisation was run in a private and closed way and even though some people asked, they did not get answers. There are questions to be asked of council leaders and chief executives about how they followed their taxpayers’ money.
As I say, there are serious allegations about helicopters being procured from friends of the former chief executive to get him from a double booking at a football match to a private family dinner back in Yorkshire. Again, we are not able to get to the bottom of that. Two reports have recently been brought out, one by BDO, which states that this organisation has claimed nearly £1 million in taxpayer-funded expenses. It is not able to work out whether the majority are appropriate or proportionate to personal use versus business use, because there are no policies, no paperwork and no proper procedures. If this organisation had been subject to freedom of information, that would have been highlighted many years ago and these measures would have been put in place. In answer to my noble friend, councils and others would therefore have been able to hold Welcome to Yorkshire to account much more easily.
This organisation has clearly been excessive and misspent public funds. There were no policies or procedures and people were being paid to sign NDAs. There was a culture of toxicity in the organisation and yet no one was able to get at it, despite the fact that £10 million of public money was spent.
I know the Minister cannot put right the wrongs and I know that most noble Lords will be shocked at the excesses I have described. But we in this House and this Parliament have the power, through legislation, to impose the rules on openness and transparency that public bodies have to follow on to private organisations that carry out predominantly public functions, and on to private outsourced bodies that carry out duties on behalf of public bodies.
This might be an excessive case but there is no doubt that it is indeed a case—and that is why freedom of information is needed. If we had had freedom of information, the taxpayers of Yorkshire would probably have been better served by this organisation, which would have been able to get to the root of some of these problems. Those who worked within that organisation would have been aware that their actions, spending and way of working were subject to public scrutiny, as would the scandal in Yorkshire that has now unfolded.
My Lords, I first remind the House of my interests in the register in connection with the Local Government Association. I thank my noble friend Lord McNally for tabling this Question for Short Debate and, like my noble friend Lord Scriven, I give him my full support.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has proved itself by adding a direct means for scrutiny of public authorities by the general public and not just by elected politicians. The Burns report of 2016 found that transparency and openness had been enhanced since 2000 and recommended that it should be further enhanced and not restricted.
Last month marked the second anniversary of the Grenfell fire. Grenfell United, in its parliamentary briefing for that anniversary, made seven recommendations, one of which was about freedom of information. It called for,
“an extension of the Freedom of Information Act to cover TMOs”—
tenant management organisations—
“and housing associations, to give tenants the right to see critical information about their homes”.
It seems a basic right for a tenant to have that information and it puzzles me that tenants can be excluded from information that is directly relevant to them.
The context is the failure of successive Governments since 2000 to strengthen the Act. It has limitations and it has fallen behind many other countries. As we have heard, the Information Commissioner has estimated that a third of government spending is used to procure public services. The problem is that more and more services have been provided by contractors who are not accountable under FoI, as the public might expect them to be. The test is whether the contract between the contractor and the public authority gives the authority the power to get the information it wants under the contract: that is, does the contractor hold the information for the purposes of the public authority or for its own purposes? On too many occasions, unfortunately, information that the public might feel they have a right to know is being denied to them. For example, it appears that fire safety defects can be excluded. This cannot be right. Contractors should not be less accountable than the public bodies that used to provide the same services directly.
It is not just PFI or other contractors; it is tenant management organisations as well. In relation to Grenfell, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation had refused FoI requests on the grounds that it was not a public authority. I find that amazing, but it is true. But worse, the Information Commissioner upheld a refusal in 2012. However, after that appeal process, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation did respond to some tenant requests for information—but in July 2017 it then refused an FoI request for a report on the emergency lighting system in Grenfell Tower that had been written in 2005. Surely it cannot be right to refuse tenants information of this kind.
The Government need to amend the law. Information of important benefit to the general public should not be withheld from them when it would be available if the public authority had not contracted out the work. The Burns report of 2016 concluded that this was the right approach. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has recently concluded likewise and the Information Commissioner, as we have heard from my noble friend Lord McNally, has called for similar changes. So, the question must be: what is the hold-up? The consequence of delay is doubt and avoidance. In the case of housing associations, it is wrong that their tenants are not able to access the same information council tenants can get.
Two years ago, the housing journal Inside Housing asked more than 60 housing associations for copies of their fire risk assessments. Very few responded. Councils would have had to. I understand that this difference is in the process of being addressed in Scotland. Might we do the same in England? It does not follow that housing associations will have to be redesignated as public organisations if they fall within the FoI remit. This is, as my noble friend Lord McNally said a moment ago, a different world from 2000, but it is the case now that FoI laws are no longer fit for purpose and I hope the Government will act.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for securing this important debate. I fear that my words will very much echo his and I feel sorry for the Minister that he has so far had so little support. As we have heard, freedom of information requests are an essential safeguard in our system of government. They give the public the tools to hold the Government to account over the decisions they take and the way taxpayers’ money is spent. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 covers central government departments and the executive agencies and public bodies they sponsor. They typically receive around 8,000 to 9,000 freedom of information requests every quarter. That has risen from about 7,000 per quarter in 2010. The percentage of freedom of information requests that departments refuse to comply with in full has increased from around 40% in 2010 to 55% by the end of 2018.
As well as this, the Act covers Parliament, the Armed Forces, devolved Administrations, local authorities, the NHS, schools, universities and police forces. However, since the legislation was introduced, there has been an explosion of private-sector involvement in public functions. This has been driven by this Government’s ideological pursuit of privatisation and outsourcing. But companies which enter into such contracts are not subject to FOI requests and subsequently not subject to similar levels of accountability as others working in the public sector. The Information Commissioner's Office, which is tasked with the special monitoring of FOIs, said,
“The lines between public and private sector service delivery have blurred as local authorities enter joint ventures with private companies and some start to trade on for-profit and not-for-profit bases. However, this growing area of quasi-commercial activity is removed from public scrutiny offered by the FOIA”.
I am particularly concerned that large companies can achieve a quasi-monopoly position and end up bidding for contracts at a lower market value when they are up for renewal. The Public Accounts Committee found that between January 2016 and July 2018 government departments had to renegotiate over £120 million worth of contracts with the private sector to ensure public service delivery would continue because they were initially contracted out too cheaply. I believe this is slowly destroying the public sector and stops smaller companies being able to enter the market. With competitors squashed, costs are forced down and inferior labour conditions are introduced. Profits subsequently rise and, instead of being reinvested in public services, they fill the pockets of those running such companies and their owners. As the Freedom of Information Act 2000 does not cover such outsourcing and private/public sector contracts, I am unable to discover to what extent this is happening.
I am losing track of the number of failures of outsourcing which have come to light in the past few years. These have thrust the question of whether private companies should provide public services into the spotlight. We all know how the catastrophic collapse of Carillion highlighted the problems with the outsourcing business model. Its collapse in January 2018 directly impacted on 30 councils and 220 schools. But the list of failures does not stop there. In May the Government were forced to announce a U-turn to reverse their 2014 part-privatisation of probation, and in April they said that they would take HMP Birmingham permanently back into public ownership from G4S after appalling violence and an inspection report last August.
A similar experience can be found at the local level. Bedfordshire County Council’s contract with HBS for financial services, human resources and other services was ended early after major dissatisfaction with services. Barnet council had to pay thousands of pounds for emergency IT services after its regular provider went into administration.
I also highlight the failings of Capita and its botched recruitment contract with the Army. Recruitment is in free fall, with numbers standing at 75,880—well below the Government’s target of 82,000. Can the Minister explain why the Government continue to sign new contracts with companies—for example, the recent £525 million MoD contract which will privatise large parts of its fire and rescue service to Capita—despite these companies having failed to simply do their job? To put it simply: outsourcing as it stands is a broken business model.
Following these failures, the public have rightly lost confidence in the privatisation of our public services and the carve-up of the public realm for private profit. They are keen for outsourcers to be subject to the same law as the rest of government. However, current loopholes in the Freedom of Information Act, as well as in the Human Rights Act, are hindering any efforts to do so, and the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has called for FoI laws to be extended to all public service suppliers. This would force companies running public services to answer to the public. Does the Minister agree that introducing more accountability can help restore some trust? Can the Minister confirm that the Government will follow the ICO’s advice and extend FoI requests to all public service suppliers?
Last Saturday, Labour announced that we would transform the legislative framework around outsourcing contacts by making them subject to the Human Rights Act and the FoI Act. We would legislate to ensure that local authorities review all service contracts when they expire and to create a presumption that service contracts will be brought back in-house and delivered by the public sector unless certain conditions and exemptions are met. We would also introduce a new set of minimum standards in contracts where outsourcing has to continue, including a fair wage clause, trade union recognition, supporting local labour and supply chains, annual gender pay audits and time-limited contracts. Will the Government be making a similar commitment? These changes will help bring accountability and public responsibility, as well as fairer working conditions, to a failed model which has been protected by this Government for too long.
It is clear that outsourcing and contracting out public functions to the private sector cannot continue without reform. The constant failures coming from major outsourcing firms cannot be allowed to continue. It is time to give the same tools to the public to hold private companies to similar standards as government departments when carrying out important public functions. Extending FoI requests is a key part of that but, overall, we also need to move away from an ideological desire to privatise first and ask questions later. However, I believe that will come only from a change of government.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for securing this debate and for the speech he made introducing it. This is a policy area in which he has great expertise, and it comes as no surprise that, in his own words, he is campaigning for further reform and updating of the original FoI Act. I am grateful to other noble Lords who have spoken, each bringing their own interests to the debate: in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, local government and housing; in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, tourism in Yorkshire; and in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, his experience of managing contracts when he was in charge of London Underground. I take note of and encouragement from what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said at the beginning—that he has very low expectations for my response and that his speech was a bit too PBL Committee for a slot in the next Queen’s Speech. He made it clear that he was not expecting any exciting announcements at the Dispatch Box and he will not be disappointed.
The FoI Act is a pillar upon which open government operates, and the Government are committed to supporting its effective operation. As the noble Lord said, it underwent post-legislative scrutiny by the Justice Select Committee in 2012, and in 2016 an independent FoI commission, which the noble Lord referred to, led by the noble Lord, Lord, Lord Burns, carried out an extensive and thorough review of the Act to consider whether it still ensured an appropriate balance between transparency on the one hand and the legitimate need for a private space for advice and discussion on the other, and also whether the costs of FoI were proportionate to its many benefits.
Overall, the commission found the Freedom of Information Act to be working well. It said:
“We do not expect that these will have a dramatic impact on the use of the Act, or on the range of information which is made available under it”.
It looked at the issue of private contractors providing public services—one of the themes of our debate this evening. By then, the principle of outsourcing was well embedded in government policy. It concluded that,
“extending the Act directly to private companies … would be burdensome and unnecessary”.
The Government welcomed the recent report— a landmark report, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord McNally—by the Information Commission and of course it is right that the Information Commissioner and the Government keep the workings of the Act under review because, as the noble Lord said, the environment in which we operate is changing. The Act covers more than 100,000 public authorities and has been in operation for more than 14 years, so of course we should keep it under review.
As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, the Information Commissioner laid a report before Parliament in January this year which examined how the Act engages with public sector contracts and information held in relation to those contracts by private companies. The Government carefully considered the report and responded to the commissioner on 24 May and placed a copy in the Libraries of both Houses. I note what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said about his disappointment with our response. The noble Lord quoted from the letter from Chloe Smith. Perhaps I may have one quote of my own. The Minister made it clear that,
“as more public services are contracted out to the public sector, it is important that they are delivered in a transparent way, to ensure accountability to the user and to taxpayers”.
After the Information Commissioner published her report, we published The Outsourcing Playbook in February 2019. It introduced a package of measures that will improve decision-making, quality of service and value for money when government outsources to the private sector. One commitment was to increase accountability and transparency by publishing key performance indicators for all government key contracts. Although this government initiative was started before the IC presented her report to Parliament, it reflects the commitment that she asked for of further transparency from government with regard to contractors. I hope that noble Lords will regard that, in part, as a response to the accusation that the Act is not fit for purpose.
In addition, the Cabinet Office has created a transparency and data team, which has been given the mandate to proactively publish government data. It is continually looking at how the range of information published by government can be expanded and made as useful as possible to citizens, business, the voluntary sector and government itself. The open contracting data standard was put into place in 2016 and ensures that citizens can see a clear public record of how government money is spent. We are looking for opportunities to build on this initiative.
I think that FoI is working well but it seems that it is essentially reactive. The Government are interested in complementing FoI by encouraging public authorities, where appropriate, to put more information in the public domain and therefore to be proactive.
Outsourcing was one of the themes of our debate. It remains an important component in a mixed economy of government service provision, which includes the voluntary sector. Outsourcing has been used by Governments and local authorities of all colours for decades, and systematic reviews across a number of studies between the 1970s and the 1990s show clear cost benefits of outsourcing, delivering cost savings of 20% for basic services. The Government are committed to building a healthy and diverse marketplace of companies bidding for contracts to deliver quality public services at good value for the taxpayer. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, estimates are that outsourced services represent about 8% of GDP and perhaps two-fifths of public expenditure.
We remain committed to spending £1 in every £3 of that sum with small and medium-sized enterprises. Listening to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, I am concerned that increasing the reporting burden on these small organisations, as well as some of the other measures that he mentioned at the end of his speech, risks reducing for those SMEs the attractiveness of government as a buyer and therefore might weaken the resilience of our market and reduce the value for money that government is able to deliver.
Supplier failure—again, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe—is rare, but extending FoI to the organisations would not, I believe, help prevent it. Financial information is often commercially confidential and is therefore exempt from disclosure under the Act.
Much of the debate was about information which should be provided when a public authority enters into a contract. There is a revised FoI code of practice, which recommends that when a public authority enters into a contract, there should be agreement on what information will be held by the contractor on behalf of the public authority and that this should be indicated in an annexe or schedule to the contract. Contractors must comply with requests from a public authority for access to such information and must do so in a timely manner. For example, if a contractor holds information relating to a contract on behalf of a public authority, this information must be considered in the same way as information held by a public authority, and it is subject to the FoIA. Examples could include information that a public authority has placed in the custody of a contractor or a contract that stipulates that certain information about service delivery is held on behalf of the public authority for FoI purposes.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, raised a number of questions and perhaps I may write to him. He asked specifically why we were continuing to place a number of contracts with organisations in the private sector.
Housing associations—an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley—are already required to make public a significant amount of information. They have to publish their accounts annually, including a strategic report covering issues such as the remuneration of key personnel. Of course, many housing associations have tenants on the board.
The Regulator of Social Housing, which regulates the sector, also publishes information supplied by housing associations at individual provider level, including details of their stock holdings, rent levels and evictions. The review of social housing regulation will be looking at how transparency and accountability for tenants can be further improved, including better access to landlord information. As I understand it, although this would not be a conclusive factor, housing associations are generally opposed to being included under the FoI Act.
The noble Lord mentioned Grenfell. I recognise the significant concerns in this area, particularly over information that should be available to tenants about the buildings they are living in. The review of social housing regulation, announced in the Government’s social housing Green Paper last summer, will look at how transparency and accountability for tenants can be improved. I will ensure that this review takes on board the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, about the legitimate requirements of tenants. I was struck by the parallels he drew between the rights of local authority tenants as contrasted with the rights of housing association tenants.
I turn to an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. I thought that his noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford raised a pertinent question about what those who are funding the body were doing. It was not clear to me how the public body—which I understand it was, namely the Yorkshire tourist board—became a private body, and who was party to that decision. Of course, I understand his concern about allegations of fraud. My understanding is that, following the allegations he referred to, Welcome to Yorkshire appointed two independent professional services businesses—the accountants BDO and the external lawyers Clarion, which the noble Lord referred to in his speech—to undertake separate investigations following the departure of the CEO, Sir Gary Verity. They investigated and recently reported on the culture, governance, procedures and management of the organisation. I am sure that the noble Lord welcomed that publication, along with Welcome to Yorkshire’s commitment to implement the recommendations in the report. I understand that more than £40,000 of expense claims have been repaid by Sir Gary. However, despite a number of exchanges, it is not the case at the moment that FoI would cover organisations of the specific nature of the current body.
There are a number of other issues that I will need to write to noble Lords about. I will conclude by saying that the Government are committed to the principles of transparency and openness across the public sector. We are proud of our global reputation as a leader on transparency. The Justice Select Committee said that freedom of information was a significant enhancement to our democracy when it carried out post-legislative scrutiny of the FoI Act. I would go further. Freedom of information is an intrinsic part of our democracy, extending to cover more than 100,000 public bodies and enabling the public to find out what has been done in their name. Those words are probably the last from Prime Minister May’s Administration from this Dispatch Box in your Lordships’ House.