Covid contracts: Extend FoI act to cover private companies making millions says Information Commissioner

Sophia Sleigh
·2-min read
<p>Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham renewed her calls for greater transparency from private companies taking Government cash</p> (ICO)

Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham renewed her calls for greater transparency from private companies taking Government cash


Private companies taking millions of pounds of Government cash during the pandemic should be subjected to freedom of information laws, a top civil servant has said.

Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham renewed her calls for private companies working on behalf of the public to be subjected to the Freedom of Information Act.

She also suggested that private companies could bear the burden of the cost of extending the act to them.

It comes after the coronavirus pandemic accelerated Government outsourcing, with billions of pounds worth of contracts handed to private companies.

The contracts have sparked allegations of cronyism after ministers were accused of creating a “fast-track VIP lane” for PPE deals.

Ms Denham told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport sub-committee on online harms and disinformation: “I think what’s needed to make the [FoI] act work in a way that’s fair to the public is that the act needs to reflect how public services are delivered.

“The pandemic has only accelerated the range of actors involved in the delivery of public service so I think the same accountability should apply for the private sector that are delivering fundamental public services.”

Asked if the rights of information should be extended to all organisations that deliver Government services, she replied: “I do.”

And asked who should pay for the associated costs, she replied: “Obviously private sector companies that are delivering services under massive contracts should bear the burden of those costs.

“How this would work in practice – extending the reach of the act to cover private sector delivery you could actually come up with a threshold of the value of the contract before that organisation is subject to transparency requirements.”

Ms Denham added: “Fundamentally what’s important is that citizens have a right to hold organisations to account, understand how decisions are made.

“If you take a housing association – that falls outside the act – then an individual doesn’t have the right to access information about the safety of their housing.

“I don’t think that’s fair.”

The Information Commissioner's Office is an independent regulatory body sponsored by the Government to uphold information rights in the public interest.

Last year the National Audit Office found that companies recommended by MPs, peers and ministers' offices were given priority as the government raced to obtain Personal Protective Equipment.

They said over half of the £18 billion spent on pandemic-related contracts was awarded without competitive tender.

It emerged that a number of multi-million pound contracts were awarded to companies and businessmen with little or no experience of supplying PPE.

The Government was under huge pressure to get more PPE at the start of the pandemic so many contracts had to be awarded without the usual competitive tendering process.

MPs have been calling for an overhaul of the way government contracts are being handled.

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