Tom Brake's bill to extend FOI Act to charities slated for second reading

But the ten-minute-rule bill, put forward by the Liberal Democrat MP, is unlikely to get on the statute book

Tom Brake MP
Tom Brake MP

A bill calling for the extension of the Freedom of Information Act to charities has been scheduled to receive a second reading in parliament, despite criticism from the charity chief executives body Acevo and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

After a 10-minute-rule motion was put forward by Tom Brake MP, foreign affairs spokesperson and chief whip for the Liberal Democrats, the Freedom of Information (Public Interest and Transparency) Bill has been slated to be heard in the House of Commons on 11 March.

Ten-minute-rule bills rarely pass into law, with most MPs using them as an opportunity to voice an opinion on a subject or existing legislation. It is not yet clear whether the government will support Brake’s proposals.

If it does pass, the bill would extend freedom of information legislation to any private companies, social enterprises and charities that carry out public sector work.

It also calls for the provisions that permit ministers to overrule Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal decisions to be removed and for a limit to be set on the time allowed for public authorities to respond to requests "involving the consideration of the public interest".

In his speech to parliament yesterday, Brake said: "Our democracy is healthier, more resilient and less vulnerable to ambush with tough and challenging FoI laws in place. The bill would strengthen FoI to ensure that no one was above the scrutiny of FoI – not ministers, the private sector, charities, parliament or the royal household."

The bill received cross-party support from the small number of MPs in the chamber at the time yesterday, and nobody spoke against it.

An Acevo spokesman, while welcoming the opportunity to discuss greater transparency of the voluntary sector, said extending the Freedom of Information Act to charities would be a "heavy-handed measure" that would "divert resources away from the front line". He said proposals to extend the act were an attempt to "disguise further dilution of the act on ministers and civil servants".

Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, said: "Charities are constantly being told that we should ensure as much of our resources go to the front line as possible. Recently, Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, exhorted charities to ‘eke out every last penny for good causes’. How would that be consistent with having to divert resources to cope with new regulations under FoI? Moreover, why should what little public money goes to these organisations be spent in this way?"

The Acevo spokesman said a voluntary code on information release for organisations that take on contracts for public services could be an effective alternative to extending freedom of information legislation.

A spokesman for the NCVO warned that the proposals could affect the ability of charities to deliver public services.

"Given the important need for charities to be open and transparent about how they use public money to deliver services, we have suggested alternative measures to increase transparency," he said.

"Public bodies should identify the information and data they need to monitor the performance of service providers and specify this within their grants or contracts. This information should then either be released proactively or subject to FOI in the usual way, via the public body."

A group of MPs and lords are carrying out an independent review of the Freedom of Information Act, which is expected to submit proposals to government shortly after two oral evidence sessions on 20 and 24 January. A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said the government would not comment on any changes to the Freedom of Information Act before the review was completed.

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