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New bid to close FoI loophole as Act marks 10 years

Freedom of information campaigners have called for the government to close a loophole precluding contractors carrying out work on behalf of public bodies being subject to FoI requests.

New Year’s Day marked the 10th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act coming into force, but the Campaign for Freedom of Information says the legislation is still being “undermined” by the increasing use of private contractors to provide public services.

Information about the services private contractors provide can sometimes be obtained from the public authority concerned, but only if it holds it on the authority concerned’s behalf.

However the Act has also won praise from the campaign’s director, Maurice Frankel.

He said: “The FoI Act has been responsible for a new generation of official data showing where standards of public services are falling short, targets are not being met, regulators are failing to keep up, policies are not having the promised effect, reckless spending is tolerated and politicians say in private what they publicly deny.”

In the past 10 years, the Act has proved both a help and a hindrance for the regional press.

The Press, in York, became engulfed in a five-year battle with the Cabinet Office between 2008 and 2013 over documents relating to Nestlé’s takeover of Rowntree confectioners in 1988.

The battle saw The Press win three legal victories, with two tribunals and the Information Commissioner finding in favour of the title.

The released documents revealed that John MacGregor, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at the time of the takeover, wrote to Trade and Industry Secretary Lord Young in 1988, urging him to refer the takeover bids by Swiss firms Nestlé and Suchard to the Monopolies and Merger Commission.

However the advice given in the letter, which was copied to PRime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was not heeded and the takeover went ahead uncontested.

In 2011 Sunderland Echo trainee reporter Tom White used the Act to discover Tyne and Wear Local Government Pension Fund, of which Sunderland City Council is a member, has more than £35m tied up in tobacco companies.

His request also revealed Durham County Council had invested just under £9m of pension contributions in General Dynamics Corp, an American arms manufacturer producing components used in cluster bombs.

The Macclesfield Express is currently involved in a legal row with Cheshire East Council over the release of a redacted report into the authority beginning work on a new rubbish dump before it had been granted planning permission.

An FOI request by the Express to publish the report was refused by the authority – a decision appealed to the Information Commisssioner’s Office.

The ICO ordered the council to publish a redacted version of the report, which featured partial censorship of 87 out of its 101 pages.

In November the Express published a special four-page pull-out to make readers aware of the ongoing saga.

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  • January 8, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    Even if contractors had to adhere to FoI requests, they would trot our the ‘Commercially sensitive information blah blah blah’ line that is the get-out clause of choice.

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