New information commissioner says FoI Act should include private firms providing public services

Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham

Newly appointed information commissioner Elizabeth Denham has said she supports the expansion of the Freedom of Information Act to include private companies that provide public services.

Currently only government bodies are subject to the act, which allows any member of the public to request information from them and expect a reply within 20 working days. It is mitigated by the Data Protection Act.

The information commissioner oversees the FoI Act and has the power to enforce compliance if a body fails to respond adequately to an information request. The role was previously held by Christopher Graham.

Denham told the BBC: “Private contractors above a certain threshold for a contract or doing some specific types of work could be included under the FoI Act.

“The government could do more to include private bodies that are basically doing work on behalf of the public.”

She also told the broadcaster that there should be a legal duty on public authorities to record all significant decisions, which would then open up negotiations to FoI requests.

Denham, who was formerly the information commissioner in British Columbia, Canada, has said she wants to be tougher on bodies that fail to respond to FoIs within the legal time limit.

She said: “Looking at this from the outside, most of the public would have the view that more than one in ten not getting a timely response to a request is not a sign of success.”

She also expressed concern over officials attempting to evade their emails being subjected to FoI requests by using personal accounts.

“People shouldn’t be using private email accounts to conduct government business,” she said.

“If they do, legally it’s subject to FoI – however, it frustrates the purposes of FoI from a search perspective.”

The FoI Act came under threat earlier this year, following a government review to mark its tenth anniversary, amid fears new public charges and restrictions would be brought in.

However, after the Society of Editors’ Hands Off FoI backed by Press Gazette, it was announced in March that there would be no legal changes to the act.

A Press Gazette petition urging the act to be left alone gained more than 43,000 signatures.

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