PL&B FOI E-news, Issue 30
1. Extension of Freedom of Information Act to private sector expected; No changes to FOI fees regulations
A package of measures to enhance openness and increase public access to information was announced by Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, on 25 October.
The Government is consulting on extending the scope of the FOI Act by including a range of organisations that perform public functions. The first of several arguments put in this consultation is that private companies which “receive large amounts of taxpayers’ money to carry out functions of a public nature……should be subject to the same scrutiny as public authorities within the scope of the [Freedom of Information] Act.”*
The Government has decided, in line with the response to its public consultation, not to raise FOI fees. The large majority of respondents, 73 per cent, objected to the Government’s plans. The Government intends, however, to ‘deliver a package of measures to make better use of the existing provisions to improve the way FOI works and to meet the concerns particularly of local authorities.’ The Ministry of Justice is keen to work with the Information Commissioner's Office to educate public authorities on how to use the existing rules to block vexatious requests.
An additional change the government is considering is a review of the so called 30-year-rule - the date by which Government departments must transfer public records to The National Archives, and the date at which records become historical.
Richard Thomas, Information Commissioner, said: ‘This is an important day for information rights. I warmly welcome Prime Minister’s recognition of the Freedom of Information Act as a landmark piece of legislation. He has sent significant signals to Whitehall and the rest of the public sector that FOI must be taken seriously. As he says, public information does not belong to government - it belongs to the public. I agree that, wherever possible, that should be the guiding principle behind implementation of the law. I also welcome his call for more to be done to change the culture and workings of government to make it more open.’
See the Consultation and consultation response on FOI fees.
The consultation on FOI section 5 - Freedom of Information Act 2000: Designation of additional public authorities, was launched on 25 October, and will run for three months until February 1st 2008.
READ MORE ABOUT THIS TOPIC IN THE NOVEMBER ISSUE OF THE PL&B UK NEWSLETTER, due to be published at the end of the month.
2. Scottish Commissioner rules on commercial confidentiality
The Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, has ordered NHS Lothian that it must disclose full details of its contract with Consort Healthcare covering the provision of building, maintenance and support services for the new Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. The Commissioner is of the view that the request could not be refused on grounds of commercial confidentiality.
His decision highlights shortcomings in the way in which NHS Lothian responded to the initial freedom of information request and his subsequent investigation.
"It is the responsibility of NHS Lothian to provide detailed justification for withholding the information requested. In this case it sought to claim that a blanket exemption of confidentiality covered every one of the thousands of pages of this detailed contract. However, other than broadly indicating why Consort Healthcare did not wish the information disclosed, NHS Lothian provided me with virtually no arguments to justify withholding the contract. As a consequence I have ordered that the contract must be disclosed."
The decision can be seen here.
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