A powerful group of MPs will today push top civil servants to agree to sweeping reforms of how Government contracts are run by the private sector following headline-grabbing failures at outsourcing giants Serco and G4S.
Margaret Hodge, the Public Accounts Committee chairman, wants to see financial information on all Government contracts revealed under what is known as open-book accounting. The former Labour minister is also demanding that the National Audit Office has full access to contractual and financial details of these deals, which should also be subject to greater public disclosure under Freedom of Information laws.
Stephen Kelly and Bill Crothers, chief operating officer and chief procurement officer respectively at the Cabinet Office, will face the committee this afternoon. They will be joined by top Ministry of Defence civil servants who could be questioned over the semi-privatisation of the £14bn agency that buys tanks and guns. Plans to let the private sector run such a sensitive part of national security have been widely criticised and the process is on the brink of collapse after one of only two bidders pulled out last week. Read more
Mark Leftly | The Independent | 25th November 2013
More than £400m of lottery money diverted from good causes to pay for the Olympics is unlikely to be repaid for decades, if at all, charities fear.
In 2007 the Labour government diverted £425m from the Big Lottery Fund, which helps small community groups and charities across the UK, to pay for infrastructure on the Olympic Park. A pledge was given that the charities would have the cash returned.
But a memorandum of understanding, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that a series of agreements has been drawn up to decide who gets first claim on cash from Olympic asset sales – and that charities are not at the front of the queue.
A body representing the good causes that have lost out has branded this a “scandal” and is questioning why none of the political parties is pressing for the money to be returned urgently. Read more
Jamie Doward | The Guardian | 24th November 2013
The number of motorists arrested for drink-driving the “morning after” has risen, police figures suggest.
Arrests between 06:00 and 08:00 rose from 350 in 2011 to 363 in 2012 – an increase of 4%, the data shows.
The figures from 22 of England and Wales’ 45 police forces were obtained by a Freedom of Information Act and published by car insurers LV.
A separate survey by LV showed 46% of drivers did not realise how long it took for alcohol to leave the body.
One in five drivers surveyed thought they were “ok” to drive the morning after they had been drinking.
According to LV, “morning-after” drink-drivers are on average five hours away from being sober enough to drive when they get behind the wheel. Read more
BBC News | 28th November 2013
A major state subsidy scheme for the UK’s gas-fired power stations is being designed by an employee of a gas company working on secondment to the government, according to a document released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc).
The list of industry secondees, released to Greenpeace under freedom of information (FOI) rules, shows that the head of capacity market design at Decc is an employee seconded for two years from the Irish energy company ESB, which owns three gas-fired power plants in the UK.
A separate industry document names the employee as Fergal McNamara and describes him as the head of capacity market design at the ministry as well as being a “government representative”. However, the ESB and Decc declined to confirm his identity when contacted by the Guardian.
The document also reveals that several other employees of big gas companies are working at senior levels within Decc, prompting criticism that there is an unhealthy closeness between the government and the big fossil fuel companies. Read more
Damian Carrington and Andrew Sparrow | The Guardian | 10th November 2013
Spending cuts have created a shortage of 20,000 NHS nurses, the Government has been warned, as fears grow that hospital wards may struggle to cope as winter approaches.
Freedom of Information requests submitted by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) to dozens of NHS hospitals in England have exposed a “hidden workforce crisis” that has been missed by government statistics.
While official figures say that just 3,859 full-time nurse, midwife and health visitor posts have been lost since the Coalition came to power in May 2010, the RCN said that thousands more nursing vacancies have been created because hospitals have not been replacing staff that have retired or moved on due to reduced budgets.
Staffing shortages have been highlighted in a number of reports into NHS care. Robert Francis drew attention to understaffed wards at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust in his report into one of the worst care scandals in the health service’s history. Read more
Charlie Cooper | The Independent | 12th November 2013
The government body that sanctioned the use of a controversial aerial pesticide over a Berkshire woodland had “quite serious concerns” about the method, it has been revealed.
A Freedom of Information request showed Natural England’s worries about the method being used to kill off the larvae of a caterpillar.
However, it still permitted spraying to take place at two copses in Pangbourne using a helicopter.
A Forestry Commission spokesman said it was the “least damaging” way to tackle a larvae that “could be a serious problem to human and tree health”.
The spraying took place at the Herridge and Broom Copses, both within a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), in an attempt to eradicate the oak processionary moth (OPM) larvae. Read more
Linda Serck | BBC News | 13th November 2013
Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has warned that the open data movement in the UK could lead to ‘open data’ becoming a substitute for ‘freedom of information’.
Speaking at the first annual Open Data Institute (ODI) summit in London, Graham said that the danger with open data is that the public only sees what the government chooses to make available – rather than the government providing data in response to specific queries.
As a result, the government could theoretically choose to publish data that casts it in a positive light, in order to detract from other data that highlights its failings.
Open data can therefore become the opposite of what it is intended to be, according to Graham, providing a very biased picture of what is actually going on in the public sector. Read more
Sophie Curtis | The Telegraph | 29th October 2013
The Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, has never been briefed on climate change by the Government’s chief scientist since taking up his Cabinet post 14 months ago, The Independent has learnt.
A Freedom of Information request revealed that the man in charge of preparing Britain for the effects of climate change has received just two briefings on the subject since taking up his post. Neither of them were from Sir Ian Boyd, the Chief Scientific Adviser at Mr Paterson’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
One of the briefings, by Defra’s head of sustainable business, Jonathan Tillson, was on the morning of 27 September this year, just before the launch of the latest Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change (IPCC) and briefly covered the main points expected to be in the report. Read more
Tom Bawden | The Independent | 30th October 2013
ED MILIBAND plans to make private companies that work for the taxpayer obey public sector transparency rules. The move risks angering chief executives who fear they will have to reveal commercial secrets.
Labour’s plan would extend the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act to firms and charities selling services to the state. It would require thousands of organisations to disclose information about public sector contracts.
Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, said: “More and more of our public services are being delivered by private companies and charities, out of reach of freedom of information. We must demand the same openness from them as we expect from government. It’s not on to let these organisations hide behind a veil of secrecy.” Read more
Jack Grimston | The Sunday Times | 27th October 2013
The Foreign Office has unlawfully hoarded more than a million files of historic documents that should have been declassified and handed over to the National Archives, the Guardian has discovered.
The files are being kept at a secret archive at a high-security government communications centre in Buckinghamshire, north of London, where they occupy mile after mile of shelving.
Most of the papers are many decades old – some were created in the 19th century – and document in fine detail British foreign relations throughout two world wars, the cold war, withdrawal from empire and entry into the common market.
They have been kept from public view in breach of the Public Records Acts, which requires that all government documents become public once they are 30 years old – a term about to be reduced to 20 years – unless the department has received permission from the lord chancellor to hold them for longer. The secret archive is also beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act. Read more
Ian Cobain | The Guardian | 18th October 2013
A shortage of British-trained nurses is forcing NHS hospital trusts to look for staff overseas as they struggle to keep wards adequately staffed.
At least 40 of the 105 hospital trusts in England that responded to a Freedom of Information request by Nursing Times have actively recruited staff from abroad in the past 12 months. A further 41 trusts said they planned to recruit nurses from overseas in the next 12 months.
Nearly 1,000 of the 1,360 recent recruits from overseas came from Spain and Portugal. Many trusts have sent nursing managers to recruitment fairs on the Continent.
Dr Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “This is symptomatic of the short-term, boom-and-bust workforce planning which is endemic in the NHS.
“It is frankly perplexing that on the one hand nursing posts are being cut and training places being reduced, while on the other, desperate managers are raiding overseas workforces.” Read more
Oscar Quine | The Independent | 14th October 2013
Pay in higher education is more unequal than previously thought, according to a report, and only a “small handful” of universities know how much their outsourced staff are being paid.
The Fair Pay Campus Report, released on 17 October, is based on the responses of 113 universities to Freedom of Information requests made by the Young Greens, the Green Party’s youth and student branch.
It finds that in 2012, the average pay differential between the highest- and lowest-paid university workers was 18.6:1, with huge variations between universities, ranging from more than 60:1 at some institutions when apprentice pay is included to 10.5:1 at Soas, University of London.
This average is substantially higher than the 15.4:1 differential for 2008 uncovered by the government-commissioned Hutton review of fair pay in the public sector, which reported in 2010 and 2011. Read more
David Matthews | Times Higher Education | 17th October 2013
There seems to be a renewed enthusiasm for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to extend to the private sector. On the Daily Politics programme last week, Labour councillor Theo Blackwell made his case for the extension, claiming that “a complex web of private contracts” between local and central government reduces accountability. Coinciding with this call, a bill was introduced in Parliament that, if passed, would extend FOIA to NHS private contractors.
What is the Bill about?
On 8th October, Labour MP Grahame Morris introduced the Freedom of Information (Private Healthcare Companies) Bill 2013-14 to the House of Commons under the Ten Minute Rule. He said in his speech to Parliament that “private healthcare companies should not be permitted to hide behind a cloak of commercial confidentiality” and that “billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being awarded to private sector companies under barely transparent contracts”.
He continued: “Meanwhile, private companies are free to benefit by gaining detailed knowledge of public sector bodies through their use and submission of FOI requests. The same information is then used by the private sector to undercut or outbid the very same public sector bodies when contracts are tendered or put up for renewal.”
The purpose of the Bill is to bring about more transparency to private firms that provide public health services, and to also ensure that there is fair competition when private and public sector firms bid for NHS contracts.
The Bill is expected to have its Second Reading on 8th November 2013.
But aren’t there already contractual disclosure provisions in NHS contracts? Why the need for the Bill?
You can access information about NHS private providers through clinical commissioning groups. These groups comprise of GPs who are responsible for commissioning or buying health care services. Since commissioning groups are subject to the requirements of FOIA, a standard NHS contract may contain obligations of assistance and cooperation on the private provider to enable the commissioner to comply with its duties under FOIA. For example, according to a recent interview with Virgin Care’s head of innovation, Virgin Care does not have to comply with FOIA requests, but it does have to supply commissioners with information if they are sent one about its health services that they provide to the NHS.
But not everything is fine and dandy. Monitor, the sector regulator for health services in England, stated in its review for the Secretary of State for Health in March 2013 that despite having Freedom of Information requirements in NHS contracts with private and charitable providers, “it is not clear that this is operating effectively as yet, and other aspects of transparency do not apply across all types of provider”.
The effectiveness of FOIA contract clauses in general was raised on the Daily Politics programme. Damian Green, Minister for Police and Criminal Justice, was of the opinion that public sector bodies should ensure that their contracts with private providers contain these clauses. Yet when it was suggested that not all were being properly implemented, Mr Green replied rather unconstructively: “In that case, they should be.”
But who can ensure that disclosure clauses are contained in contracts with private providers? In response to the programme, Campaign for FOI tweeted that the Information Commissioner’s Office cannot enforce them.
Is it likely that the Bill will pass the Second Reading?
The Bill is certainly in for a rough ride. Last year, Mr Morris put forward an Early Day Motion, which proposed that private healthcare companies should be subject to FOIA. The motion was signed by 111 MPs, with the majority of support coming from fellow Labour MPs. Not one Conservative MP signed the motion.
The current government is unlikely to support the passing of the Bill. Commenting on the Justice Committee’s “Post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000”, it indicated that FOIA was not going to be extended anytime soon and that the approach of ensuring that contracts contain disclosure provisions is here to stay:
“The Government expects that contractors will fully assist public authorities in meeting their current obligations under FOIA… contracts should include clear provisions in this regard, and stress that public authorities should not be reluctant in taking all necessary steps to ensure compliance.”
The government also suggested that any extension of FOIA would have a burdensome impact on businesses.
Few expect the Bill to gain enough support to pass yet the debate on whether FOIA should be extended to the private sector is unlikely to cease anytime soon.
Alex Salmond has faced Labour accusations of dishonesty after it emerged he was privately warned his flagship plan for an oil fund would require a separate Scotland to cut spending or increase taxes.
Opposition parties used First Minister’s Questions to contrast his public claims the proposal was affordable with a report by Scottish Government officials, which was published under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
Written by civil servants in March last year, it showed that ministers were warned about their plan to squirrel away North Sea revenues in one or more funds instead of spending them on public services. Read more
Simon Johnson | The Daily Telegraph | 10th October 2013
More than 450,000 people could already have received a court summons because they have fallen into arrears with their council tax payments following changes to the system, it was claimed.
Ministers have been criticised over a decision to reduce spending on council tax benefit by £500m a year from April. The Government has told local authorities to decide who should lose the cash. Critics have warned that unemployed and low-paid families will be heavily affected as benefits to the elderly are protected. They have predicted the move will increase numbers of people struggling with unmanageable debts and the threat of visits from the bailiff.
Freedom of Information (FoI) responses from 112 English town halls have disclosed that 156,500 people have received summonses as a result of changes to council tax benefit six months ago. They included 11,830 disabled people, 2,153 carers, 59 veterans and 54 war widows. Read more
Nigel Morris | The Independent | 11th October 2013
The Freedom of Information Act should be updated to include “any body funded by the taxpayer” said a Labour councillor.
The act applies to local and central government – allowing the public to ask for details about how they work – but not to the private companies and voluntary firms who carry out work for them.
Theo Blackwell, the London Borough of Camden Council cabinet member for finance, said it meant a “complex web of private contracts” is not subject to as much scrutiny. Read more
BBC News | BBC News | 9th October 2013
An increasing number of public bodies are failing to respond to Freedom of Information requests, the Scottish Information Commissioner has reported.
In her annual report, Rosemary Agnew said there had been a 14% rise in appeals to her office in 2012/13.
She said 27% of those appeals related to a failure by the public authority to respond – the highest proportion of such appeals to date.
Public authorities are legally obliged to respond within 20 working days.
The publication of the report coincides with new research which reveals that only 49% of the Scottish public are confident they would receive an FoI response within 20 working days, with only 10% stating that they would be “very confident” of a response. Read more
BBC News | 1st October 2013
Five prison staff are assaulted by inmates every day in London, the Standard can reveal.
Nearly 4,000 attacks on wardens have been carried out in the past two years, with almost half of all prison officers in the capital attacked, figures show. The shocking statistics, revealed in a Freedom of Information request, reveal more than 14,000 assaults on prison staff in Britain last year, with many of the most violent attacks in London and the South East.
The figures from the Ministry of Justice show that at Belmarsh maximum security prison there were eight serious attacks on wardens in the past year — one of the highest figures in Britain — and 68 other assaults. At Pentonville, there were 268 assaults — five serious ones — on the 520 staff in 2012/13. In one case, two guards were hospitalised after being beaten by a prisoner who was refused a second helping of food. Read more
Benedict Moore-Bridger | The Evening Standard | 4th October 2013
Nearly £47million has been paid by councils to pedestrians injured by shoddy pavements.
The payments were for personal- injury claims made by people who have tripped or fallen on poorly maintained walkways during the past four years.
Over the same period, spending on pavement maintenance went down by £2.7million to £162.2million.
The total payment figure, which includes compensation and lawyers’ fees, is likely to be higher because half of the 272 councils approached with freedom of information requests failed to respond at all or within 20 days. Read more
Hayden Smith | Metro | 4th October 2013
The armed forces should seek to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public by reducing the public profile of repatriation ceremonies for casualties, according to a Ministry of Defence unit that formulates strategy.
Other suggestions made by the MoD thinktank in a discussion paper examining how to assuage “casualty averse” public opinion include the greater use of mercenaries and unmanned vehicles, as well as the SAS and other special forces, because it says losses sustained by the elite soldiers do not have the same impact on the public and press.
The document, written in November 2012 and obtained by the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act, discusses how public reaction to casualties can be influenced and recommends that the armed forces should have “a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of press and public opinion”. Read more
Ben Quinn | The Guardian | 26th September 2013
Britain’s controversial deployment of US-built Reaper drones in Afghanistan will come under scrutiny in court this week in a closed hearing that will see a UK-based drone operator give evidence for the first time.
The two-day hearing starts in London on Monday. It is expected to include testimony from a UK-based drone operator with “1,000 hours of Reaper experience supporting UK and coalition activities”. He will speak on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. Tom Watson, the chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group examining drones, will also give evidence.
The appeal to the Information Commissioner, filed by Chris Cole of the campaign group Drone Wars, comes after numerous Freedom of Information requests relating to Britain’s role in drone warfare were allegedly refused by the MoD. Mr Cole aims to challenge that stance, claiming public interest. Read more
Kunal Dutta | The Independent | 22nd September 2013
As new figures show the number of people killed in drink-driving crashes rose by 17%, the BBC has discovered that thousands of drink-drivers are repeat offenders.
A fifth of those on a DVLA “high-risk register” have been on it before.
There are calls for more stringent checks before offenders are given back their licences.
The government said it had tightened up rules, and drivers now had to prove they were no longer alcohol-dependent.
Drink-drivers who are more than two and a half times over the legal limit, who have two or more drink-drive offences within a 10-year period or who refuse to give breath, blood or urine samples, are classed by the DVLA as “high-risk offenders”.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, the BBC discovered there are currently 230,149 banned drivers on the DVLA’s scheme and of these, 42,207 drivers had been on it before. Read more
Nicola Beckford | BBC News | 27th September 2013
The Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to submit requests to public authorities to access information they hold. But what are ‘public authorities’?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) covers a whole range of public authorities, some of which may surprise you. Of course, you can submit a request for information to your council or to a government department, but there is some scope to be imaginative.
The list includes:
- Any government department
- A local authority such as a council or parish
- The NHS, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries
- Schools, colleges and universities
- Police authorities, including the Metropolitan Police
Who else does it cover?
Schedule 1 of FOIA also lists non-departmental public bodies, committees and advisory bodies. You can submit a FOIA request to the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens, or to the Bank of England. You could send a request to the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Civil Aviation Authority, where in August, a FOIA revealed the number of “air rage” incidents that took place on passenger flights in and out of Northern Ireland.
Research councils are also covered, such as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. In September, a FOIA request revealed that research councils reclaimed more than £2 million from universities for failing to submit adequate financial reports.
And then there are organisations that you may not have realised were covered by FOIA. Some museums and galleries are also covered by FOIA, such as the Tate. In August, the Telegraph ran an amusing FOIA story which revealed that the gallery received 192 complaints about a Damien Hirst exhibition. One complaint read: “Boring, visually unstimulating pretentious rubbish.”
You can also submit one to the British Film Institute, the Imperial War Museums and even the Big Lottery Fund (since they are considered under Schedule 1 as ‘public bodies and offices’). Last year, a FOIA request submitted to the Student Loans Company revealed that 63,000 graduates were overcharged and together paid £36.5 million too much.
Are there government departments and agencies that are not covered by the Act?
Yes. Mi5 and other intelligence agencies such as the Serious Organised Crime Agency are exempt from FOIA due to national security reasons. You also have to watch out if public authorities are exempt from FOIA for specific purposes. For example, take the Bank of England. It does not fall within the scope of the Act if the information requested relates to monetary policy and private banking services. Also, Members of Parliament and Members of the House of Lords are not considered to be public authorities therefore they are not covered by the Act.
Can I submit a FOIA request to a private company?
On the whole, no. But there have been calls for FOIA to be extended to private companies that deliver public services. In light of the probe into G4S and Serco for the overcharging of tagging criminals, Sadiq Khan MP stated that the Act should be extended to “give greater accountability and transparency”. The Committee of Public Accounts have also called for FOIA to extend to Private Finance Initiatives, where private money is used to fund public sector projects. The Treasury cited commercial sensitivities for the Act not to apply, but the Committee said that “it has been all too easy for departments and investors to hide behind commercial confidentiality, rather than provide full disclosure of costs and benefits to inform value for money”.
Yet there are a few exceptions. You can submit FOIA requests to private companies such as Boots and Tesco if it is in regard to their NHS pharmacy services. Furthermore, you can access information about NHS private providers through commissioners. In a recent interview with Virgin Care’s head of innovation, Virgin Care does not have to comply with FOIA requests, but “it does have to supply commissioners with information if they are sent one about services it provides”.
Who should I send my FOIA request to?
The first thing to do is browse the public authority’s website, which should signpost people to the FOIA team contact details. If you cannot find it, ring the public authority’s general enquiries line. But you should also browse the FOI Directory, which has put together lists of FOIA email addresses of city councils, police authorities, non-ministerial departments, academies and many, many more.
Britain’s most senior civil servant travelled hundreds of miles to attend a dinner with the Chief Executive of the fracking company Cuadrilla – just a day after the company announced its controversial plan to drill for shale gas in Sussex.
Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary attended the dinner in a private room of the Marriot Hotel in Preston in May this year.
He was joined by four other senior Government officials including the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
Other guests included representatives of the onshore oil and gas industry and service management company Carillion.
The meeting came to light in emails released to the environmental group Greenpeace in a Freedom of Information request. Read more
Oliver Wright | The Independent | 19th September 2013
More than 50,000 people affected by the so-called bedroom tax have fallen behind on rent and face eviction, figures given to The Independent show.
The statistics reveal the scale of debt created by the Government’s under-occupancy charge, as one council house tenant in three has been pushed into rent arrears since it was introduced in April.
Figures provided by 114 local authorities across Britain after Freedom of Information (FoI) requests by the campaign group False Economy show the impact of the bedroom tax over its first four months. Read more
Emily Dugan | The Independent | 15th September 2013
Only the most severely frail and disabled elderly can now expect to get home help from the state, a large-scale survey has found.
Four out of five councils are limiting vital amenities such as meals on wheels and alarm systems to the ‘critically’ in need.
The result is that hundreds of thousands who desperately require help are shut out of the care system and left to cope on their own.
The tightening of the rules by councils in charge of the home help system has meant that its number of users has fallen by nearly a third in just five years, from more than a million to just over 700,000.
The checks carried out by Which? show the depth of the cuts to the home help service by councils desperate to reduce costs.
Restrictions on who gets care at home began eight years ago, as social services departments found ways to limit the help they give in a way which carried little risk of a backlash for elected councillors.
Which? said that its figures, based on Freedom of Information requests sent to 181 councils, show that 80 per cent don’t offer care at home to anyone who falls outside the ‘critical’ or ‘substantial’ categories of disability. Read more
Steve Doughty | The Daily Mail | 19th September 2013