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FOI public contractor expansion bill set for second hearing

SEC Group lends support to Private Member’s Bill intended to force greater transparency around the performance of public services delivered by bodies such as housing associations

Parliament will this week discuss a bill on opening up the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to apply to all public service contractors and housing associations as a means to improve transparency around how functions such as fire safety commitments and regulations compliance are being met.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information pressure group, which was involved in drafting the proposed legislation, said that the bill introduced by Labour MP Andy Slaughter will have a second reading in the House of Commons on Friday, June 15.

The Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill is designed to bring together all data held by a contractor concerning their performance in delivering public services under the scope of FOI legislation.

A statement from the Campaign for Freedom of Information said, “At present, information held by contractors delivering public services is only available under FOI if the contract entitles the public authority concerned to that information from the contractor. If the contract is silent, the public has no right to it.”

The Specialist Engineering Contractors’ (SEC) Group said it the welcomed proposed amendments to FOI legislation, citing concerns over the outsourcing of public works to large companies such as defunct construction giant Carillion.

SEC Group head Professor Rudi Klein said that current regulations has allowed companies such as Carillion to operate under the radar with little accountability in the lead up to its collapse earlier this year.

Professor Klein said, “The various parliamentary inquiries into Carillion have confirmed this as a major issue. Even government procurers had little insight into Carillion’s activities. One of the reasons that the insolvency process will take a long time is that nobody seems to know for sure who was in Carillion’s supply chains.

“Nobody was aware of the extent of payment abuse applied to Carillion’s sub-contractors. It is, therefore, about time this loophole was closed. Carillion was able to get away with so much for so long because there was so little public scrutiny of its actions. Now the public is paying a hefty price for winding up this monster of an organisation.”

Among the proposed changes in the bill would be ensuring housing association were subject to FOI law. Campaigners have argued this would help tackle concerns that 54 out of 61 bodies operating in the sector have previously refused to provide fire risk assessments to media.

The bill is intended to provide the UK information commissioner with new powers to gather information from contractors when investigating complaints. It would also make contractors subject to an offence that applies to public authorities found to have deliberately destroyed requested information to prevent disclosure.

MP Andy Slaughter said that the proposed legislation was needed to keep pace with significant changes in how public services and contract were delivered.

He said, “A third of all public spending now goes on public services provided by private companies or charities, but too often information about them falls outside the reach of the FOI Act. It needs to keep pace with this enormous change in public service delivery.”

Mr Slaughter introduced the proposed legislation as a Private Member’s Bill, the same parliamentary mechanism used earlier this year to put a revised legislation that would ringfence cash retentions to parliament.

The second reading of the Construction (Retention Deposit Schemes) Bill that was introduced to parliament by MP Peter Aldous has been delayed until June this year. Groups such as SEC Group and BESA that helped formulate the draft legislation said the delay emphasized the importance of pushing for greater parliamentary support to introduce the payment reforms in order to push the government into implementing new legislation.

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