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House of Commons Hansard
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Freedom of Information (Amendment)
31 January 2018
Volume 635

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the disclosure of information held by public authorities or by persons contracted to provide services for them or on their behalf; to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000; and for connected purposes.

Nearly 20 years on from the revolution of the Freedom of Information Act, this Bill would extend its parameters into the unaccountable outsourced state. It would also enhance the existing powers available to private citizens, investigative journalists and concerned communities so that they are not forced to wade through a swamp of bureaucracy before getting answers about the decisions that are made in their name.

I would first like to pay tribute to the many other Members who have campaigned on this issue for many years, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who has a very similar Bill in this Session and has focused particularly on housing associations, which I will come to shortly. Those in power have had a long and difficult relationship with freedom of information, and, like much that challenges government, it has met resistance every step of the way. The Thatcher Government were so concerned in the 1980s that they warned that FOI would reduce the sovereignty of Parliament itself.

In that context, it was remarkable that the last Labour Government, who had been out of power for 18 years, committed themselves to shining a light on the shadows cast by decisions made behind closed doors. Tony Blair said at the time that the Act

“is fundamental to changing the way we do politics in this country…there is still far too much an addiction to secrecy and wish to conduct Government business behind closed doors”.

Tony Blair, of course, came to regret the revolution that followed, but it was nothing short of revolutionary. Literally thousands of cases, on every topic imaginable, saw information drawn into the public domain—expenses, bonuses, stop-and-search figures and child sexual exploitation were all exposed and brought to light because of this Act. That was a Labour achievement and it is one we should be proud of.

That is why the last two Labour manifestos pledged to extend FOI to private contractors performing public services. We propose extending this Act because we recognise the climate in which FOI operates has changed, as the Government’s addiction to outsourcing has exploded.

The collapse of Carillion is just one recent example of an ever-growing shadow state in which some of the Government’s more dubious policy priorities are outsourced for private profit, leaving citizens in the dark about what is happening in their name. Under the coalition, outsourcing almost doubled to £120 billion. Never before has shareholder interest over the public interest had such a large stake in the functioning of our state. Transparency and accountability have diminished in consequence, and the limited scope of the Freedom of Information Act allows too many of those who are performing public functions with public money none the less to hide behind a cloak of secrecy.

Bad decisions, targets missed, warnings ignored—the result time and again is similar to the scandal exposed in the past fortnight, which should have been predictable. Carillion was not an isolated example of incompetence and indifference from one individual contractor; it was a symptom of a much broader problem—private contractors providing public services that should never be driven by profit. In the welfare system, we see contracts structured by Government farmed out to the private sector, and the consequences only truly exposed when things fall apart.

We saw that in the last Parliament, when we were pursuing Concentrix, the firm contracted to identify fraud in the tax credit system. That multinational corporation was ruthlessly pursuing single parents and families, on the instruction of the Treasury, and treating them as guilty until proven innocent. It accused them of living with people they had never met, or told them they were to have their tax credits arbitrarily cut because they did not respond to a letter they had never received. One single mum, who worked two jobs for little pay, said to me, “I feel as if I am being treated as a criminal.”

The scandal was not just the treatment of these parents, or the pursuit of profit at their expense. The scandal was the Government’s absolute failure to manage the contract effectively, and then the denial of information to Members of this House who were demanding to know what went wrong. A similar case is that of Cygnet, a private provider of mental health services. Its hospital in my constituency was judged unsafe owing to some very severe shortcomings, but even something as basic as the action plan agreed by the regulator, the NHS and the provider has been withheld from public scrutiny as it is deemed to be the property of the private provider.

It should not take public exposure for decent people to be treated with dignity, or for information to be put into the public domain as a matter of course. The current situation is allowing private contractors to withhold information that is very clearly in the public interest. Maurice Frankel and Katherine Gundersen, from the fantastic Campaign for Freedom of Information, have pulled together examples of the type of request private contractors have refused. They include: the number of prison staff at HMP Birmingham and the number of attacks at the prison—information currently held only by G4S—whistleblowing policies applying to Virgin Care staff providing NHS services, and the number of employees providing outsourced services for a local council employed on zero-hours contracts.

Extending the Act into areas that used to be overseen by the state and were therefore subject to FOI is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. When institutions or private providers are permitted to withhold information, bad decisions are made and mistrust builds among communities. The Grenfell Tower fire has highlighted the desperate need for public access to information held by the providers of social housing. Housing associations, which own or run many former council estates, are completely outside the scope of the Act, and residents are denied information that they have a right to know. In one instance, a housing association refused to reveal information to residents about the cause of a fire in one of their flats, and whether potentially toxic lead pipes were used for the water supply to a property. Making contractors accountable to the public they serve for the decisions they make will lead to better, safer, clearer decisions.

The original Act still gives too much power to authorities to delay and obstruct an individual’s right to information. In 2015, the Government commissioned an independent review of FOI, which made several recommendations to improve the functioning of the Act. This Bill takes up those recommendations. It includes strictures on the delaying tactics available to authorities and a statutory time limit for internal reviews, and provides that an offence under the Act should be triable either way rather than being summary only. There has never been a prosecution under section 77 of the FOI Act, in large part because there is a six-month deadline for bringing prosecutions, which is long gone by the time the public authority has made a decision and the commissioner has received and investigated a complaint. Extending the offence to be triable either way gives authorities a chance to bring prosecutions and ensure that the Act is enforced.

Sunshine is the best disinfectant—advice from their former leader that the Government may wish to remember. Ultimately, few could disagree with the need for parity for public and private providers when they are delivering public services. Whether it is Concentrix, Carillion or Cygnet, why would we hold private providers to a lower standard of transparency and accountability than their public competitors? If sunlight really is the best disinfectant, here today is the chance to clean up the murky world of our outsourced state, to drive up standards, to improve trust and to ensure that it is always citizens, not shareholders, who are the ultimate authority for our public services.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Louise Haigh, Tommy Sheppard, Andy Slaughter, Paula Sherriff, Jo Stevens, Ian C. Lucas, Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods, Nic Dakin, Alex Sobel, Diana Johnson, Anna Turley and Clive Efford present the Bill.

Louise Haigh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on 15 June 2018, and to be printed (Bill 159).

Business of the House (Opposition Day)

Ordered,

That at today’s sitting, paragraph (2) of Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments) shall apply to the Motion in the name of Jeremy Corbyn as if the day were an Opposition Day; and proceedings on the Motion may continue, though opposed, for three hours after commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order and shall then lapse if not previously disposed of; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(Rebecca Harris.)