It’s time we extended Freedom of Information to public services run by private companies – just ask Jago the Rabbit

People should be able to ask about how well the service they are paying for is being run

Share

Anyone who knows the story of Jago the rabbit will understand why we need to extend Freedom of Information to private companies who deliver public sector contracts.

Jago was the pet rabbit that was successfully registered as a court translator. He was even booked in for shifts, after the Ministry of Justice bungled the outsourcing of language service contracts.

Jago’s short-lived career as a translator says less about his talent and much more about why we need to ensure private providers delivering public services are properly held to account.

This week’s headlines on the scandal of G4S and Serco overcharging for electronic monitoring of offenders are a further reminder of what can happen when third party contractors escape scrutiny.

The two companies have had to pay a combined £214m to the taxpayer after charging millions of pounds for tagging offenders who had died, moved abroad, or who were already back in prison.

Cases like these are why we proposed reforms in Parliament this week to make private contractors delivering Government contracts comply with Freedom of Information (FOI) requests in the same way public bodies have to. 

With billions of pounds of public money at stake, we need transparency about what these firms are doing.

Disappointingly, Government MPs blocked our amendments to the Criminal Justice & Courts Bill yesterday morning. Less than an hour after voting down our proposals however, Ministers floated their own watered down idea for a new code of practice on the use of FOI.

What they propose is a code of practice that encourages public authorities to request data from private firms they contract with. Most already do this, often with rather poor track records of actually getting any of the required information.

Clearly this won't go as far enough and won't compel companies to release information. It does show however that the debate on Freedom of Information is shifting.

We all know that the delivery of public services is changing. Government currently spends £187bn on goods and services with third parties each year, around half of which goes on contracting out services.

Private providers are queuing up to bid for the lucrative financial rewards that come with these large-scale contracts. As outsourcing is stepped up, more and more information about public services and public money is being pulled out of the public domain.

This presents a very real challenge that we cannot avoid. The rewards third parties stand to gain need to go hand-in-hand with a duty of transparency and a willingness to share information.

The Freedom of Information Act does technically apply to supply chain companies deemed to be holding information on behalf of a public authority. In practice however contracted providers are not subject to anywhere near the same transparency requirements as publicly run services.

We can see this in the new private prisons, in parts of our increasingly fragmented NHS, and the companies struggling to deliver the Government's failing Work Programme.

That’s why we need to build Freedom of Information into the contracts Government take out with third parties. The influential Public Accounts Committee recommended this just a few days ago.

Many Government departments are not providing information on how these contracts work on the grounds of commercial sensitivity. That is not an excuse that the public will accept for much longer.

Of course commercial confidences need to be respected. There should be an onus on contractors however to do all they can to work around this, and provide the public with as much information as possible without breaching it.

People should be able to ask about how, and how well, the service they are paying for is being run. Otherwise we risk eroding trust and confidence in the basic services our society relies on every day.

Labour has pledged to tackle this issue head-on and bring companies providing public contracts fully within the scope of Freedom of Information legislation.

Freedom of Information can be uncomfortable. It can give Government ministers sleepless nights and shed light on difficult issues. But that’s the point. 

David Cameron used to speak about leading ‘the most transparent Government ever’. Two years ago he spoke about “the power of information” and how “it lets the people hold the powerful to account.”

We agree with the Prime Minister. Jago probably does too.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Critics of Fiona Woolf say she should step down amid accusations of an establishment cover-up  

Fiona Woolf resignation: As soon as she became the story, she had to leave

James Ashton
 

Letters: Electorate should be given choice on drugs policy

Independent Voices
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes