Friday, 22 October 2010

Public services - now is the time we need access to information

As we all begin to weigh up the catastrophic consequences of Gideon Osborne's cuts on our public services, it is likely, whether we are public service workers, trade unionists, community activists, campaigners or service users, that we will be seeking information on those services. All the expert opinion appears to be saying that requests under FOI are likely to increase in these circumstances.

It is therefore an appropriate time for the Scottish Government to seek to close some of the loopholes that allow bodies to slip through the net and refuse to disclose information. In particular when public services are provided by private contractors, housing associations, local council trusts, or other non-public bodies.

While technically such bodies could have always been covered by the simple decision of Ministers to designate them under Section 5 of the Act, this is in fact, the first time it has been attempted since the Act's passing in 2002.

Obviously, these 'outside bodies' make great public play about how much better they are in providing services than the old public sector, so you would think they might welcome the opportunity to promote that. After all, a commercial company that is sensitive to the needs of the public sector to be accountable for our money might have a better chance of winning contracts? 

Call me an old cynic, but my previous experience with UNISON, was that commercial companies did their damndest to hide away from the light of information provision. Private contractors tried to prevent Lothian Health Board revealing details of the PFI contract for the ERI; North Ayrshire Leisure refused to respond to a request for information as they were not a public body; and Scottish Water's PFI contracts seem to be in some twilight zone!!

That is why if you feel it is important that outside bodies doing business with the public sector must be accountable for the way they spend our money - and according the Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner - 'at least two thirds of the Scottish population favour extending Scotland's FOI laws to cover bodies such as housing associations, leisure trusts, PPP/PFI projects and private prisons.'  - then I suggest you might want to make your views known to the government by responding to their consultation. It is available at - and responses are due by November 2.

The proposals aren't perfect - PFI contractors in the Water service aren't covered, nor are housing associations except for the GHA - but the principle that such bodies should be covered is worth getting behind. And no time is more appropriate than just now!

No comments:

Post a Comment