Evidence Based Policy: Farewell FOI

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

David Cameron’s intent to roll back the government’s involvement in public services and loosen the grip of the state has attracted a great deal of criticism from the usual quarters, with infamous leader of Rail, Maritime and Transport Union Bob Crow quoted as proclaiming that Cameron would “have a bare knuckle fight on his hands as trade unions join with local communities to defend everything from hospitals to fire services”.

Cameron detailed the plans that will appear in a new white paper in an article for the Telegraph.

“…public services should be open to a range of providers competing to offer a better service. … open to everyone who gets and values the importance of our public service ethos. This is a transformation: instead of having to justify why it makes sense to introduce competition in some public services – as we are now doing with schools and in the NHS – the state will have to justify why it should ever operate a monopoly.

It seems that Cameron’s Big Society is essentially privatisation under the guise of localism.

Asides from personally being politically opposed to potentially sweeping privatisation, I am sure that there will be pros and cons to such an approach to services, although my fear is that the agenda of localism will lead to more bureaucracy and, in effect, a post code lottery. I also worry that the poorest areas will be affected the worst and, much like Lansley’s proposed reforms for the NHS, the evidence that market forces will improve ‘public’ services markedly is perhaps scant; the premise more ideologically driven. Rail privatisation is a case in point (although there is a convincing argument that they never should have been nationalised in the first place), opening it up to the markets was supposed to make the railways more efficient and more cost effective. However, they are now obscenely subsidised with ever rising fares for passengers.

Beyond my ideological unease with sweeping privatisations, there is an undeniable reason to oppose the privatisation of public services: reduced transparency and access to information on how services are run. Currently, all public services, and all the information they hold about themselves and about you, is subject to the Freedom of Information act (FOI) which Heather Brooke and others used to great effect to expose the expenses scandal. It states:

General right of access to information held by public authorities.

(1) Any person making a request for information to a public authority is entitled—

(a) to be informed in writing by the public authority whether it holds information of the description specified in the request, and

(b) if that is the case, to have that information communicated to him.

The FOI covers all public services at present, but private companies and organisations are currently exempt, and likely to remain so. The move to privatise services without giving due care and attention to preserving our rights to Freedom of Information make public services, to my mind, less accountable, less open and less transparent. All records up to the date of privatisation, as detailed here, would remain public. However, after privatisation, the veil of secrecy could descend.

The BBC provides this document for contractors and suppliers which details what information they will release under FOI relating to their activites:

“When FOIA comes into force, the BBC is likely to disclose on request the following types of
• the nature of the goods, service or project which is the subject of the contract including
appropriate parts of any Invitation to Tender
• the BBC’s overall contract spend on particular goods, services or projects
• the performance standards in a particular contract
• completion or administration of a particular contract”

Based on the BBC document the exemptions that are most likely to apply to contractual information if private companies take over public services are:

• Trade secrets – we will not disclose information relating to trade secrets. (s.43(1))
• Commercial interests – we will not disclose information if it would prejudice the commercial interests of any person. For example, the unit prices of goods, or information that could identify profit margins is likely to be withheld under this exemption. (s.43(2))
• Personal privacy – we will not disclose information if disclosure would breach the Data Protection Act. (s 40)
• Data Protection – We will not disclose information that has been given to us in confidence if doing so would constitute an actionable breach of confidence (s. 41(1))

If you doubt the importance of FOI, read this article, and consider whether it could mean less of the following (1, 2, 3), and whether this possibly risks leaving us a little more in the dark than need be.