The Importance of Freedom of Information by Matthew Burgess

More than a billion pounds of public money is set to be washed into the murky seas of unaccountability, in one fell swoop, as the biggest private contract for health care is put up for tender.

Bids have been invited for £1.2bn worth of contracts to run the (soon to be former) NHS services in Staffordshire.

Prime Minister David Cameron was lambasted by opposition MPs with them calling the outsourcing deal a ‘fast track to privatisation’.

And it’s not just the NHS which is falling to the private companies.

Prisons, probation services, welfare, immigration, education and almost any service you can name are slowly being transferred into the hands of the private giants.

Along with these services being outsourced to the private providers there’s the loss of transparency and accountability for members of the public.

Freedom of Information laws, which allow anyone to ask public authorities for information, don’t apply to the services that are being ran by private providers.

Members of the public cannot ask how the services they are funding are performing. It isn’t possible for them to get the data on the issues that matter. In short being able to follow the money isn’t possible.

Basic information is not accessible let alone their darkest secrets.

Transparency to the public for the public’s money should be one of the foremost important principles in an open democratic society. For this to be the case FOI laws should apply to companies who receive and spend public money for services used by the masses.

Without the accountability it’s impossible to know where the money, in these cases several billions, is being spent.

The government says instead of extending the FOI laws to include the companies under the provisions contractual clauses should suffice for them to provide information.

In an ideal world this would work well. But not everything is as buoyant as the government’s view. Contractors make mistakes and they do things wrong. Charging the public for electronic tags for dead people being one example.

Not being subject to FOI laws means that the private contractors aren’t obliged to hand over the information.

Even if it is in the terms of their contracts that they should provide data to a public authority the private company is hardly unlikely to lose the contract for not bothering to do so.

There are no realistic consequences for private companies, whereas public authorities are regulated by the Information Commissioner – who is able to impose sanctions.

As long as these companies continue to be outside the remits of the FOI Act it won’t be possible to know what secrets they are hiding from the public who pay, and use the services.

 

Synopsis: Increasing privatisation of public services and the outsourcing of large contracts is putting once publicly available information behind closed doors and hiding the secrets that would once allow organisations to be held accountable.

Bio: Matt Burges is a journalist and Freedom of Information enthusiast. He works on a range of B2B digital magazines and in his spare time runs the website FOI Directory which contains contact details for public authorities, examples of FOI being used in the media and also articles on FOI news and developments.

FOI Directory Founder:
http://www.foidirectory.co.uk
@FOIDirectory @mattburgess1

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