Freedom of Information: Should It Apply to Private Companies?

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 allows members of the public to request access to data recorded by public sector organisations and also obliges them to publish certain information about their activities.  The Information Commissioner’s Office provides a useful overview.  This is an important tool in a democratic society, as it allows public scrutiny of the use those organisations make of the public funds we provide through our taxes.

There are many examples where journalists have exposed dubious use of public money or poor behaviour by those working in public sector.  For example, earlier this year MayorWatch used a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, issued to Transport for London (TfL), to expose that Barclays paid less than expected towards the extension of London’s bike hire scheme into South-West London.  When the response to the FOI took longer than expected, MayorWatch then issued a second FOI for the correspondence relating to their previous request.  This revealed a less than transparent attitude by TfL that seems at odds with the intention of the Freedom of Information Act.

Should Freedom of Information not also apply to private companies?  Certainly, it would seem a good idea if it applied to any private company that either provides a public service or is in receipt of taxpayer funds.  Examples of such organisations are train operating companies and private organisations that subcontract work from public bodies such as councils or the NHS.

For example, over the past year I raised a number of concerns with my local train company Southern, including questions along the lines of the following:

  • How much does a ticket machine cost?  This was in connection with their refusal to install one in my local station.
  • What advice do they issue to their conductors with regard to showing identification to passengers on request?  In fact I asked them to publish this on their website for everyone to see.
  • When a passenger has boarded a train without a ticket due to lack of purchasing facilities at their local station, do they expect that passenger to walk through the train to locate the conductor?  I have pointed out that those passengers could be elderly, pregnant, disabled, accompanying small children or carrying heavy luggage.

I did not receive a reply to any of those questions, although on the 3rd one they seemed to imply but did not clearly state that the answer was yes!

Unfortunately, without FOI there is no real way of forcing Southern to answer such questions or reveal information that may be of public interest.

I am simply using Southern as an example here, but this principle applies to any private sector company providing a public service.  Experience tells us that unless companies are forced to reveal information, they are inclined not to be transparent and may decline to answer questions they find inconvenient, often citing (frequently inappropriately) “data protection” or “commercially sensitive information” as the reason.  Councils often sub-contract out services to private companies and there seems to be a relentless march towards privatisation of the NHS, so we may increasingly find that information that should have been available to the public creeps back into the private domain.

There may also be a case for FOI applying to fully private companies, even if they do not run a public service or receive money from the taxpayer.  Recent news stories highlighting dubious tax arrangements by large corporations provide just one example of why this may be a good idea.

I think it is high time that the government , and possibly even the EU, considered extending Freedom of Information legislation to private companies.

In the meantime, you can issue FOI requests to public sector organisations and the Government has produced a guide on how to do so.

Since writing the above article FOI has been extended to apply to Network Rail.