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Freedom of Information Act rules will not affect contractors

25 July, 2009

It has been reported that policy makers have said that contractors would remain outside the scope of the 2005 legislation therefore contractors supplying services to public authorities will not face requests under the Freedom of Information Act, in line with demands from the business community.

The policy makers have said that contractors would remain outside the scope of the 2005 legislation thereby heading off the prospect of extra costs for large and small government suppliers alike. They went on to explain that forcing compliance on private sector companies would hike costs for the state, as the suppliers would pass on the bill for having to answer requests.

During a recent discussion on extending Freedom of Information rules, officials said that contractors needing to be Freedom of Information compliant might put them off public sector roles altogether, and that the information that contractors would be asked to provide could already be available via the public authority - with whom the duty to provide services rests. In his statement the Ministry of Justice said that the government had concluded that no general expansion of the FOI Act in relation to contractors is appropriate at the present time.

According to a recent report it was felt by some of the consultation respondents, which included the Information Commissioner, Intellect and NO2ID, that providing details on contractors and their performance should remain the government’s job. The employers’ organisation, the CBI, agreed mainly because of the cost issue, rather than to stop government departments wriggling out of their data-retention duties.

The CBI added that companies would find it very difficult to factor in FOI Act requests as fixed costs when contracting with government and could set a price per request instead. This would mean that contracts may engender significant additional costs where companies receive a substantial number of FOI Act requests. A proliferation of costs and potential litigation could come into play if the details request about a contract could be sought from both the contractor and the public authority.

The Minister of Justice, citing the CBI’s concerns, was recorded as saying that whether or not Freedom of Information rules should apply to contractors performing a public service, they would therefore have to be kept under review.  In the interim all government contractors would be encouraged to comply with the spirit of the legislation and volunteer information when requested.

Consultation respondents on the other hand argued that private sector firms contracted on transformational government projects should be expected to comply. They felt that private sector outfits as well as those on big state IT programmes, such as E-borders and ID cards, should be brought within the scope of the Freedom of Information rules.

Other bodies will now be brought within the FOI Act, including the Association of Chief Police Officers, UCAS and the Financial Ombudsman Service. Contractors providing services to care homes, detention centres and prisons would be kept under the closest watch, the Minister of Justice concluded.

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