Charities delivering public services should be subject to requests under the Freedom of Information Act, but the act’s requirements should not be extended to all charities, according to a report published by the Cabinet Office.
The report was published by the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, which was established in July last year to review the Freedom of Information Act.
The report says that charities and companies delivering contracts worth more than £5m should be required to provide information about services carried out under those contracts, though it remains unclear whether they or the contracting authority would be subject to a request under the act.
However this is not an official recommendation, as it was outside the scope of the original consultation.
“We are persuaded that information concerning the performance or delivery of public services under contract should be treated as being held on behalf of the contracting public authority,” the report says. “This would make such information available to requestors who make requests to the contracting public authority.
“Public authorities issue a large number of contracts of all kinds, and some are very low in value. We do not want to impose an unnecessary burden on either public authorities or small businesses, so we think there should be a threshold from which these obligations commence. In our view any private company which is delivering public services under contract with a value at or greater than £5m per financial year should be covered. The total of £5m should relate to either a single contract, or the cumulative value of contracts with that public authority within a single financial year.
“We consider that imposing this obligation on existing contracts would create additional costs and uncertainty for the contracting parties who would not have been aware of these obligations when the terms of the contract were agreed, and therefore the obligation should apply prospectively only to contracts signed after the enabling legislation comes into force.
“While the Commission has not received persuasive evidence that the Act should be extended to charities in their own right, we consider that charities providing public services under contract should be treated in the same way as other contractors.”
Nick Davies, public services manager at NCVO, has said that if the government wish to take this recommendation further, then the charity sector needs to be consulted.
But he said there “are a huge number of details that would have to be worked out to make sure that voluntary sector contractors were not further disadvantaged”.
Davies said that NCVO had been concerned that any review of the act, as it relates to the voluntary sector, could damage charities’ ability to use Freedom of Information requests to “hold the government to account”. However, he said the initial recommendations were acceptable.
“Overall it’s a pretty balanced document that’s largely protected the ability of voluntary sector organisations to request info the advocate on behalf of disadvantaged communities. We’ll need to see the detailed response from government before popping open the champagne.”