Hughes: Lib Dems will extend Freedom of Information to open up public services run by private companies

simon hughesIt’s been a week of Lib Dem policy announcements, foreshadowing the party’s pre-manifesto to be voted on by members at this October’s conference in Glasgow:

Monday: Norman Baker: “The Lib Dems want to restore the public’s trust in the police”
Tuesday: Fairer funding for Wales: “Lib Dems will actually do something about it,” vows Kirsty Williams
Wednesday: Steve Webb: Lib Dems will introduce “fair warning” for job-seekers who break benefit rules before sanctions imposed
Thursday: Lib Dems pledge more tax cuts: after personal allowance raised to £12.5k will also increase National Insurance threshold

And on Friday, ready for the weekend papers, Simon Hughes – the Lib Dem justice minister – highlighted plans to bring housing associations, water companies and the Big Six energy companies within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, opening them up for public accountability.

Here’s how the Financial Times reported it:

Water companies, the “Big Six” energy suppliers and housing associations would be forced to open their books to the public under Liberal Democrat proposals. The move would represent the biggest overhaul of Freedom of Information rules since their introduction in 2000. Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem justice minister, is also pressing for private sector contracts delivering public services to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. “I want to … open up the information about the way public services, and other services given to the public, are run,” he told the Financial Times. …

He signalled his determination to press on with a wider review of the FOI law in the run-up to next year’s election, and hoped to publish the consultation next month. “This is core territory for us,” he said. “I want to make sure we can get as far as we can in this parliament.” Mr Hughes’ proposals to extend the rules to a narrow range of private companies would be a significant extension of the law that until now has been limited to public bodies. The powers were originally introduced by Tony Blair in 2000 to deliver a “more open government”.

“This is about catching three big fish it is right to bring into scope: housing associations, water companies and the Big Six energy companies,” said Mr Hughes. He believes that housing associations should be subjected to FOI requests, given that many are “effectively local authority housing providers under another name”. But he also wants to extend the act to “monopolistic” water and energy groups, and concedes that this is the “most controversial” aspect of his proposals. The question is “whether we ought not to use FOI to help the public hold to account people who are serious contributors to the household bills,” he said.

Finally, he wants to extend the law to specific contracts that private sector companies hold with public bodies. “I think there is fairly widespread support for this and it can be done in this parliament by a change in the guidance which can be issued from the department,” said Mr Hughes.

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  • Little Jackie Paper 17th Aug '14 - 3:15pm

    ‘The question is “whether we ought not to use FOI to help the public hold to account people who are serious contributors to the household bills,” he said.’

    The same could be said for Tesco. Why not open up them to FoI? For that matter why not open up private sector newspapers to FoI, they all seem to think FoI is great.

  • Richard Dean 17th Aug '14 - 3:21pm

    Quite a few of those “policy announcements” seem to have not been thought out very well, and not actual policy because not yet endorsed in the proper way by the party. See for example the discussions on Norman Bakers ideas about drugs and animal testing.

    Maybe a better description would be a week of brainstorming – throwing out ideas that will need a lot more work before they start to look like policies?

    But my personal impression was perhaps less charitable – LibDem MPs reaching panic mode, realising at last that many won’t have the same jobs after 2015, and trying anything in desperation!

  • Tony Dawson 17th Aug '14 - 3:41pm

    The bottom line is that the energy utilities are a ‘split monopoly’ in all but name. They have nothing particular to compete with each other over and should probably never have been privatised. Unlike the water utilities, however, which should certainly never have been privatised!

  • Melanie Harvey 17th Aug '14 - 4:28pm

    Welcome this whole heartedly based on issues I have discovered through a DPR.

  • Sadly, I’m not certain this will extend to private companies, charities and quangos contracted to do public sector work. I myself have found a dead-end several times when the public authority I’ve requested authorities have said that, under the act, they’re actually not FOIable.

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