Thursday, 14 January 2016

The Freedom of Information Act and Local Enterprise Partnerships >>> making public contracts transparent

A parliamentary committee has been looking at the FOI Act:
Futures Forum: The Freedom of Information Act > plans to restrict citizens' right to information would “severely damage democracy”

Local government has generally not been very happy with how the Act has inconvenienced their operations:
Futures Forum: The Freedom of Information Act and East Devon >>> >>> "This council spends a large amount of taxpayers' money on FOI requests."
Futures Forum: The Freedom of Information Act >>> local government: How to make an FOI request

The Times today lead with an impressive attack on the proposals to extend the FOI Act to unexpected and diversionary areas:


The government’s sneaky attack on FOI has to stop

The WI is being sacrificed to save Cabinet Office blushes

Few people could have realised when it was passed just how profound the Freedom of Information Act would be. For the first time, the public had a legal right to demand information from their public services rather than accept what they were given.
This was a major shift of power in favour of the citizen. Over the past 15 years, it has proved a powerful tool to uncover facts about poor practice in health and other public services, senior pay levels and expenses, and the unseen actions of government.

The government’s sneaky attack on FOI has to stop | The Times

And as the Telegraph notes, proposals to extend the Act to charities diverts attention from the central issue of sharpening scrutiny of government:

Charities should not be subject to Freedom of Information requests

Extending FoI to the voluntary sector would dilute openness and spare the Government from scrutiny

New FOI curbs could make Government more secret
Photo: ALAMY
Just as the Government faces criticism for proposing to limit Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to Whitehall departments and other state agencies, it now wants to extend the Act to charities – all 165,290 of them. Most of these organisations are led by volunteers. They range from household names such as the British Legion and Barnado’s to the local bowls club.
The justification for this move is that charities receive taxpayers’ money in some shape or form, either to provide services or to fix the church roof. Charity leaders welcome transparency and support the public’s right to know how their money is spent; and on the face of it, this proposal would appear to strengthen that right.
Yet dig a little deeper and it is evident that this measure would actually undermine FoI. It is, in truth, a rather crude tactic to divert attention from the central issue. The rationale behind the review of FoI currently taking place is to protect the sanctity of the adviser-politician relationship and the impartiality of advice that civil servants may offer.
Newspapers, broadcasters and campaigners for open government are understandably suspicious. In September 2015, over 140 media organisations wrote to David Cameron urging him to abandon suggested reforms. A petition organised by the 38 Degrees group calling for FoI to be protected has gathered almost 200,000 signatures.
The concern is that the review is in reality an attempt to dilute FoI and so spare the Government from scrutiny. And one is compelled to view the proposal to extend FoI to voluntary organisations in this context – as a strong-arming measure to defuse the criticism of the real dilution of openness that is threatened by this review.
FOI costs in central and local government, and the NHS
Only 6 per cent of all government expenditure with independent organisations makes its way to the charitable sector. Most of the rest goes to large companies and higher education institutions. Not only would this extension of FoI to the charity sector be minuscule, therefore, it would also be capricious.
Charities are already regulated by the Charity Commission. Do they need more rules? Do we really want our charity leaders and our volunteers spending their time fielding all manner of FoI requests, let alone having to appoint the staff to do it? How useful is it for my local vicar to face demands that she answers requests for information on the consumption of communion wine or the people who run my cricket club to disclose how much beer was consumed at their annual dinner?
"This proposed measure is a blunderbuss that would do nothing for transparency but ultimately harm good causes"
Charities are told by government we should ensure as much of our resources go to the front line as possible. Recently in this newspaper, Rob Wilson, the civil society minister, was exhorting us to “eke out every last penny for good causes”. How is that consistent with having to divert resources to cope with new regulations under FoI. Moreover, why should what little public money goes to these organisations be spent in this way?
Other reasons used to justify this measure do not bear scrutiny. Take, for example, the suggestion that it would help prevent calamities like the collapse and closure of Kids Company. This is disingenuous. The information about Kids Co’s mismanagement was publicly available by way of its accounts. Concerns were raised years before its final collapse, including by civil servants (and were already available under FoI). So this was not a case of a lack of public information, but of government getting it wrong.
Using this example as evidence is to try to play down government culpability rather than learn the lessons of the collapse in terms of the historic underfunding of charity leadership and governance. How ironic it would be, then, if changes to FoI made it impossible to find out about civil service advice in cases like this yet at the same time require children’s charities to divert resources from the front line.
The Government needs to work with charities and commercial organisations to get this right. We have alternatives. One idea is for voluntary and commercial organisations that take contracts for services from public bodies to subscribe to a voluntary code on information release.
As charities we could discuss with the Charity Commission how best to make data available on the use of public funds. This would recognise the importance of the principles behind FoI while at the same time being sensitive to the extent to which the burden of red tape weighs heavily on voluntary bodies.
This proposed measure is a blunderbuss that would do nothing for transparency but ultimately harm good causes.
Sir Stephen Bubb is chief executive of Acevo, the charity leaders’ network

Charities should not be subject to Freedom of Information requests - Telegraph
Charities Must Be Transparent But Must Retain Independence - Freedom of Information Only for Public Contracts | John Tizard

As pointed out, these proposals also distract from the much bigger pot of money which the taxpayer provides but which is not accounted for:

Double Standards On New Freedom Of Information Laws

Charity box by Howard LakeThe government wants to impose limits on Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to Whitehall departments and state agencies, but proposes extending the Act to charities – all 165,290 of them. Many of these charities are led by volunteers. Meanwhile private companies which supply public services will remain exempt.
Responding to the news Peter Holbrook, Chief Executive of Social Enterprise UK, said: “Whether the Freedom of Information Act should be extended to charities is important, but risks overshadowing the bigger issue in this critical debate, which is that private companies are not necessarily going to be covered by the new FOI laws. Taxpayers spend close to £200 billion every year on goods and services with third party providers, the majority of which goes to private companies. These firms are already difficult to hold to account and often operate with little transparency.
“Extending the Freedom of Information Act to include charities and social enterprises is perfectly reasonable where they receive substantial sums of money from the taxpayers’ purse to deliver crucial services. But private companies delivering public services must also be open to the same rules and regulations. In the last Parliament, the Government committed to this. A U-turn now would be a grave mistake – multi-billion pound private companies must not be allowed to quietly slip under the radar whilst smaller charities and social enterprises, which reinvest their profits and operate for the greater good are singled out.
“These multi-billion pound companies deliver a range of public services, including for some of society’s most vulnerable people, and they really do need to be accountable to the government, commissioners and taxpayers. This issue needs a greater airing in the public domain – charities and social enterprises must not be a distraction from the much bigger and more serious issue facing commissioners and citizens.”

Double Standards On New Freedom Of Information Laws - Blue and Green Tomorrow

This is the current campaign from 38 degrees:

Protect Freedom of Information (FOI) laws

To The Government

Petition Text

Protect our Freedom of Information laws, that give people the right to hold our decision makers to account.

Why is this important?

The government wants to restrict Freedom of Information laws - that help citizens expose dodgy lobbyists, poor government decisions and threats to public safety. They're desperate to water down our right to hold them to account. While only a few of us may have ever made a request using Freedom of Information laws - they have the power to affect us all.
It was a ‘Freedom of Information’ (FOI) request that exposed the MPs’ expenses scandal. And it was another FOI request which exposed that a third of NHS contracts were being handed out to private companies. FOI requests are critical for many of the campaigns that improve our society.
Newspapers and several Conservative MPs have already spoken out against the plans. A huge people-powered petition - signed by hundreds of thousands of us - will add even more pressure on the government to scrap their idea. Please sign the petition now.

38 Degrees Logo

What are companies like Serco and G4S spending our public money on? Right now, none of us have the right to know. Because private companies hired by the government aren’t covered by transparency laws. [1]

But this could change. The government’s “considering” extending Freedom of Information laws to cover private companies. [2] It’ll mean we can finally see what’s going on behind closed doors - in privatised NHS services, failing prisons and anything else that’s been flogged to the highest bidder.

The idea’s been leaked in the press. And politicians will be seeing what reaction it gets. A huge petition now, signed by hundreds of thousands of 38 Degrees members, will leave them in no doubt: the public deserves to know what anyone who spends public money is up to.

Please sign the petition to David Cameron now - it only takes ten seconds now to add your name:

Because of creeping privatisation in our NHS, companies like Serco and G4S are responsible for the care of the elderly and most vulnerable in our society - they need to answer to us.

38 Degrees members have fought hard for the right to know what our politicians are up to, what they’re spending our money on and who they’re dealing with behind the scenes. Because of us, it looks like the government’s already back-pedalling on their plans to close down bits of Freedom of Information. [3]

People-power has no bounds. The government’s change of heart is down to us - so now let’s set the bar higher. [4]

Tell the government to give us access to what companies are doing with public money. Please add your name to the petition now:

Thanks for being involved,

Bex, Amy, Maddy and the 38 Degrees team

[1] The Freedom of Information Act right now only covers public bodies. You can read about it here:
ICO: What is the Freedom of Information Act?:
[2] The Times: Ministers to put charities in the spotlight under new FOI laws:
NB: The Times article is behind a paywall. For more information please see the article below:
Horticulture Week: Charities and Contractors may come under Freedom of Information Act:
[3] Press Gazette: FoI minister Matthew Hancock would be 'very happy' if commission suggested no changes to act, reports The Times:
Press Gazette: Hands Off FoI: Senior minister tells The Sun 'nobody in Government wants to touch this now:
[4] 38 Degrees blog: Dear PM – Don’t weaken our Freedom of Information Act!
38 Degrees blog: Freedom of Information: submit to the consultation
38 Degrees blog: Freedom of Information: petition handed in

Protect Freedom of Information (FOI) laws

A specific comment from a petitioner refers to the need to make public contracts transparent:

“Freedom of Information is an essential part of democracy, supporting the ability to hold the people who spend public money to account.

With the government wanting the private sector to take a greater and greater role in this, most recently using LEPs (formed primarily of businesses) to spearhead devolution, the need for such companies to be transparent and accountable has never been stronger.

Please extend the Freedom of Information Act and Environmental Impact Regulations to those parts of private companies that are accepting public money and on the same basis to any significant sub-contractors.”

This forms very much part of the context of the proposals for 'devolution' for Devon and Somerset - as highlighted by the East Devon Watch blog:
Some questions about our Local Enterprise Partnership | East Devon Watch

See also:
Futures Forum: Devolution for Devon and Somerset? >>> concern grows
Futures Forum: Devolution for Devon and Somerset? >>> "to mandate bodies of unelected businessmen to define and effect policy without any scrutiny or accountability to electors or their representatives."
Futures Forum: Devolution for Devon and Somerset? >>> of Local Enterprise Partnerships and 'what happens when a lobby group of landowners and developers gains too much influence over the democratic planning process'
Futures Forum: Devolution, Local Enterprise Partnerships & accountability

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