back to article It's high time we extend Freedom of Information Act to outsourcers

"You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it," Tony Blair famously said. He wasn't referring to the Iraq war – as some might think – but the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act. Some 17 …

  1. corestore

    Massive DING there. And one of the biggest and best examples of why that should be is... internet censorship. Long ago the government outsourced the creation and maintenance of a secret list of 'banned' websites to the Internet Watch Foundation; almost all ISPs use that list to block websites. But since it's in the hands of a private organization the list is exempt from FOIA requests and cannot be independently investigated to see what's on it. That's absolutely bloody scandalous. Censorship is bad enough (IMHO) - but secret censorship is revolting.

    1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      There's also the question as to who are actually making these decisions, what their rules are, appeals against incorrect labeling, etc.

  2. Jedit Silver badge

    "(DExEU) granted only 15 per cent of FoI requests in full"

    To be fair, no government department can provide information it doesn't have. If there's one thing Leavers and Remainers should be able to agree on it's that the management of Brexit has thus far been utterly shambolic. In the three months following the triggering of Article 50 most of the requests received by DExEU would be along the lines of "What are your plans?" and "When are you going to start negotiating?" - two questions to which sending no answer would be answering in full.

  3. Bill M

    Well said Kat

    Well said Kat

  4. J P

    Just an observation

    The scope of the "IR35 for the public sector" rules is "bodies covered by the FOIA". So if you extend FOIA to outsourcers then depending on how you word their coverage you could massively increase the application of the new IR35 rules, unless the underlying tax legislation is revised as well.

    Not I know directly related to the underlying issue of transparency, but something which many readers might nevertheless consider worthy of consideration if any practical changes were to be made.

  5. teebie

    Yes it is.

    Get Capita to do something terribly instead of having a government department doing it terribly so the public can't find out how terribly it is being done doesn't seem like a solution to the correct problem.

  6. Norman Nescio Silver badge

    Public Accountability for Public Services

    If a service is paid for by the public purse, then there should be public accountability: and that does not mean 'reviewed' by a committee of unelected civil servants or advisers. It should be a matter of fact that operation of public services requires FoI transparency, which is not trumped by commercial confidentiality.

    Perhaps there should be a judicial test, that if the service would be required to release FoI information when operated by government, then it should be required to release the same information when outsourced, whether to a commercial provider, or to a QUANGO or NDPB - you should not be able to escape scrutiny by outsourcing.

    1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Public Accountability for Public Services

      Inasmuch as government application for tenders have to be made public you'd have thought so, cf. the "bargain" deal the government's getting for Hinckley Point. It's a sleight of hand to hide the embarrassing details behind a commercial contract and should really be tested in the courts, as they have successfully in, for example, Berlin. Okay, different jurisprudence and jurisdiction but the principle applies: the Berlin government sold off the local utilities using contracts with guaranteed price rises that it, for some unknown reason, wanted to keep secret.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Public Accountability for Public Services

        You don't need to go as far as Berlin for that.

        There is, for example, the deal between the troubled city of Birmingham's council, and its troubled and now defunct Service Birmingham arrangement with a troubled and not yet defunct outsourcer called Crapita.

        2006: contract signed:

        2015: (random choice from many articles on similar themes over many years)

        2017: contract to be 'dissolved':

        "The controversial Service Birmingham IT company set up by Birmingham City Council and Crapita is set to be wound up three years early in a bid to save £43 million of taxpayers' money.

        The joint venture, under which Crapita ran the city's information and communication technology (ICT) systems, council tax collection services and formerly ran its call centre, was set up in 2006.

        The contract was condemned as being far too expensive at its peak in 2011, costing the council £120 million a year at a time of cuts. It currently costs £70 million a year. [continues]"

    2. Lysenko

      Re: Public Accountability for Public Services

      If a service is paid for by the public purse, then there should be public accountability

      A blanket like that would end up making the guy who washes the Job Centre windows liable to FoI demands - along with every cab driver who ever had a Civil Servant in the back. You need to differentiate between an outsourced government function and a generic service that just happens to be supplied to a government department or employee in a given instance.

    3. Oh Homer

      Public Accountability for everything that affects the public. Period.

      Actually the public has an inalienable (if not legal) right to know everything that any publicly influential entity is up to, whether it's government funded or not. Once you cross that line from private citizen to an organisation that serves the public, you should rightfully forfeit any right to privacy, because your right to a private life does not include the right to manipulate mine.

      1. the spectacularly refined chap

        Re: Public Accountability for everything that affects the public. Period.

        Actually the public has an inalienable (if not legal) right to know everything that any publicly influential entity is up to, whether it's government funded or not.

        Bollocks, and it's precisely that sort of ill considered reaction that can easily mask any more reasonable proposal. An individual IS an "entity" so think about the implications: if I start a local campaign to save a library from closure should I sacrifice my privacy? Should you, when you report that dangerous pothole at the end of the road?

        If you think this is fair or reasonable you are wrong. If you think demanding this is somehow an "inalienable" right you are wrong and wrong. If you don't this is exactly what you are demanding you are wrong, wrong and wrong.

    4. moonrakin

      Re: Public Accountability for Public Services

      Ha! swerving scrutiny via outsourcing eh?

      A couple of years back I asked DECC how many Greenpeace / Friends of The Earth / WWF folk they had on secondment - their reply was that since it was all done via a third party they couldn't say....

  7. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

    I agree.

    But the thought of an "International Conference of Information Commissioners" just made me laugh. It something about the rhythm of the words coupled with the alliteration.

  8. Eduard Coli

    Well yes, actually

    The prime motivation for the outsourcing was so they could skirt FOA. At least it is the main reason they are doing this in the States.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I know a certain local gov...

    ....who are now with Google and because they can't afford the extra cost of Googles e-mail retention will just claim they don't hold old e-mails anymore if asked for FOI's that would involve data held in e-mails.

    I find it highly bent and suspect and I suspect illegal.

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