Sector mulls calls for extension of Freedom of Information Act

The Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has called for the act to be extended to cover charities that deliver public services under contract

Should it be extended? (Photograph: Getty Images)
Should it be extended? (Photograph: Getty Images)

Charity sector representatives have given a cautious welcome to calls by the Information Commissioner to extend the Freedom of Information Act to cover charities that deliver public services.

Earlier this week, Elizabeth Denham laid a report to parliament that called for organisations delivering public services, including charities and social enterprises, to be subject to the act.

Only public sector organisations are currently covered by the legislation, but several other countries, including Scotland, have expanded their laws to include organisations that deliver public services on behalf of government.

In a statement, Kristiana Wrixon, head of policy at Acevo, said extending the act should be "approached with an open mind".

But she added: "Any conversation on the subject needs to include serious thought about the impact on charities of delivering on any new regulation.

"Fulfilling freedom of information requests can be expensive, and many charities delivering public services are already financially squeezed by shrinking government contracts. It is important not to inadvertently create additional barriers to small and medium-sized specialist charities delivering public services."

Douglas Dowell, senior policy officer at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said the NCVO agreed in principle with expanding the act, but details about how it would work needed to be ironed out, including ensuring it was not a burden on smaller charities.

"We strongly support the principle of transparency in public contracting," Dowell said. "A lot of charities are at the forefront of holding public bodies to account and are very aware of how important the act is. We think there should be a right to understand how public decisions are taken and how public services operate.

"We just need to think about what the best approach would be, otherwise it could cause disproportionate problems.

"For us it is about having a discussion on how best to approach this, and the ICO’s report is the start of that debate."

The Directory of Social Change told Third Sector that expanding the act would make sense only if a "clear definition and taxonomy of public services" was put in place, dictating in which circumstances an organisation working within the public sector would be affected by the act.

A spokesman for Social Enterprise UK said it supported the Information Commissioner’s proposed changes to the legislation.

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