Extending the FOIA to companies? Two trials and one conference mark nearly 10 years of the FOIA entering into force

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was adopted (received Royal Assent) on 30th November 2000 and entered into force on 1st January 2005. This week:

1. There is a hearing in the Information Tribunal on whether water companies should be considered Public Authorities within the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. The companies state that a water company is a private sector body and therefore should not be regarded as a Public Authority. The contrary argument is that provision of water is a Public Authority function and companies provide a monopoly service in their area and, therefore, should be subject to the FOIA and the Environmental Information Regulations.

2. The Supreme Court has a hearing to decide whether The Guardian’s FOIA request to gain access to Prince Charles’ letters to government ministers should be disclosed.

3. The Information Commissioner yesterday celebrated the FOIA’s 10th anniversary by organising a conference, Freedom of Information – Ten years on at the Royal Society of Arts in London. Access requests continue to increase to both central and local government and to the police. The cost of taking a case to the Information Rights Tribunal is high and they are sometimes on trivial matters. FOI and access to all information can be seen as a benefit to society in holding government to account and can be linked to the Open Data agenda which is about access to structured data.

Minister of State for Justice, Simon Hughes MP, said that he was pleased to join this FOIA 10th anniversary event, as the Transparency Agenda is an important part of the coalition government agreement. Since the formation of the government in 2010, 100 organisations had been added to the list of Public Authorities subject to the FOIA, including the Police Federation and Network Rail from 1st September this year. The FOIA Code of Practice on extending the FOIA to companies which work for central government “will be upgraded and brought up to date before the end of this Parliament.” He hopes that this trend will be achieved by contract but if that fails, he hopes that the next government would take more action in the next Parliament.

He said that most government departments have responded within the statutory period. “FOI is a tool to an end so that government is open not secretive….It is better government if it is open and transparent…. We want enquiring citizens.”

PL&B’s Stewart Dresner asked the minister whether the government would adopt the Private Members’ Bills on extending the FOIA to private sector companies carrying out public sector work (e-news 10th November 2014 www.privacylaws.com/Publications/enews/)
to become a government Bill which would speed the legislative process? He replied that he personally and the Liberal Democrats are in favour of this step but it will not be a government Bill in this Parliament.

There will be a fuller FOI article in the next edition of the PL&B United Kingdom report.