Sir Stephen Bubb warns of 'blunderbuss approach' to freedom of information

The government is preparing to extend the Freedom of Information Act to improve transparency in the way charities spend money, according to a Daily Telegraph story published over the Christmas period

Sir Stephen Bubb
Sir Stephen Bubb

Extending the Freedom of Information Act to the voluntary sector is a "blunderbuss approach" that could have serious ramifications for some charities, third sector leaders have warned.

The Daily Telegraph published a story on Christmas Day suggesting that the government was considering extending the act to ensure there was more transparency over how charities spent public money.

The Telegraph’s story said that Matthew Hancock, the Cabinet Office minister in charge of freedom of information, was behind the proposals to extend the provisions of the act to the voluntary sector.

It quoted Hancock as saying: "I have campaigned for transparency in many different ways and driven the open-data agenda, because transparency brings accountability and improves value for money, so we should look at ways that FOI should be extended."

The government set up an Independent Commission on Freedom of Information in July 2015 to consider how the legislation could achieve a better balance between transparency and the protection of sensitive information.

The commission has received more than 30,000 submissions of evidence and is expected to release the results of its review soon after two oral evidence sessions on 20 and 25 January.

The Cabinet Office said it would not comment on speculation before the commission’s report was published.

Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the charity chief executives body Acevo, said in a statement that the charity sector was open to greater transparency, but extending the scope of the act could have a negative impact on front-line work.

"Charity leaders embrace the principles of transparency and welcome any opportunity to extend accountability," he said.

"Existing legislation and regulation already deliver transparency, but we would be glad to explore with government any sustainable means of extending this.

"However, many charities could find the FOI Act a difficult and overwhelming obligation. Extending the act is a blunderbuss approach that will divert resources from the front line."

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations also warned in a statement that there were better ways of achieving transparency than expanding the act. But it said the government’s overall approach was encouraging.

"We’ve long called for more transparency in outsourced public services, whether they’re run by businesses or charities, but there are more effective, efficient and proportionate ways to create it than by extending the FOI Act to service providers directly," a spokeswoman said.

"Businesses and charities running public services should be required to collect the data necessary to monitor their performance, and this information should be made openly available or subject to FOI via the contracting authority.

"The government’s approach to opening up data on public service contracts is encouraging, but there is still further to go."

Karl Wilding, director of public policy at the NCVO, added on Twitter that "transparency and accountability in charities is right and proper", but the Freedom of Information Act was a "blunt tool to achieve this".

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