Freedom of information could extend to IT service firms in public sector

IT services firms working for public bodies could be brought under the scope of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the government has announced.

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IT services firms working for public bodies could be brought under the scope of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the government has announced.

The proposal to extend the act to private sector service providers is outlined in a consultation document launched by the Ministry of Justice.

But the plans were also trumpeted by prime minister Gordon Brown in a speech setting out the government’s new civil liberties policy – a factor that could give the proposals added weight.

Speaking at the University of Westminster, Brown said it was “right” to consider extending FOIA’s coverage.

The consultation would examine “whether additional organisations discharging a public function - including in some instances private sector companies running services for the public sector – should be brought within the scope of Freedom of Information legislation”, the prime minister said.

The consultation, which runs until February next year, will look at five main options.

* No change – only the public authorities already covered by FOIA would be under a statutory obligation to provide information.

* Self-regulation by the relevant organisations. Companies could be encouraged to sign up to a code of practice and provide information about their public activities on a voluntary basis.

* Build information access obligations into contracts with organisations delivering public services. This would provide for some form of information access, in relation only to services provided under contract.

* Bring a specified set of organisations within the scope of FOIA. This would be done through orders under section 5 of FOIA, which allow organisations that appear to “exercise functions of a public nature” or provide public services under contract to be brought under the act.

* Introduce a series of section 5 orders to widen FOIA’s coverage over time.

The effect of extending the scope of FOIA on IT firms and other suppliers is likely to depend on the nature of the service they provide. The consultation document says: “The key criterion is whether the provision of that service is a function of that public authority.”

This means that if a local authority, for example, contracts a private sector firm to provide services that the authority “provides or is expected to provide as part of its functions”, the company could in future be covered by FOIA. Such a measure could affect IT services firms involved in providing public-facing services.

"On the other hand, a contract to provide stationery or IT equipment for purposes purely internal to the public authority might not be considered as providing a service whose provision is a function of the authority,” the document says. This would exempt the provider from an extended FOIA.

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