Louise Haigh: Why we need FOI laws to cover the shadow state of outsourcing

Those in power have had a long and difficult relationship with freedom of information. And, like much that challenges government, it has met resistance every step of the way: the Thatcher administration was so concerned in the 1980s it warned that FOI would reduce the sovereignty of Parliament itself.

In that context it was remarkable that the last Labour government – out of power for 17 years – committed itself to shining a light on the shadows cast by decisions made behind closed doors.

Tony Blair said at the time “this (act) is fundamental to changing the way we do politics in this country…there is still far too much an addiction to secrecy and wish to conduct government business behind closed doors”.

Blair came, however, to regret the revolution that followed.

But nevertheless it was nothing short of revolutionary. There were thousands of cases on every topic imaginable in which information was obtained and used in the public interest: expenses, bonuses, stop-and-search figures, the exposing of child sexual exploitation – all brought to light because of the act. A Labour achievement and one we should be proud of.

Twenty years on from its introduction, today I will present a bill in parliament that would extend the parameters of FOI into the unaccountable outsourced state which for far too long has been allowed to conduct its business behind closed doors: delivering a growing share of our public services but without the accountability to match.

As the government’s addiction to outsourcing has exploded, it is high time we brought the private sector out from the shadows.

The collapse of Carillion is a high-profile example of an ever-growing shadow state in which some of the government’s more dubious policy priorities are outsourced for private profit, leaving citizens in the dark about what is being done in their name.

Under the coalition, outsourcing almost doubled to £120bn and never before has shareholder interest rather than the public interest had such a large stake in our state.

Transparency and accountability has diminished in consequence and the limited scope of the freedom of information act has contributed to this, allowing contractors to get away with failure on a breathtaking scale.

Carillion though wasn’t an isolated example of incompetence and indifference from a hapless contractor, as the ministers sought to portray it.

It was a symptom of a much broader problem: private contractors providing public services that should never be motivated by profit. And commercial sensitivities mean our awareness of failings and our right to information are strictly limited.

In the welfare state you see contracts structured by Ministers, then accountability is farmed out and the consequences only truly exposed when things fall apart.

I saw that when I was pursuing Concentrix, the firm called upon to go after fraud in the tax credit system. This multinational was ruthlessly pursuing single parents and families, on the instruction of the Treasury and treating them as guilty until proven innocent.

The scandal wasn’t just the treatment of these parents. Nor was it just the pursuit of profit at their expense. The scandal was also the government’s denial of information to the MPs and the public who were demanding to know what was going on. It was not until parliament and the press seized upon it that action was taken.

It shouldn’t take public exposure for decent people to be treated with dignity or for information to be put into the public domain. The current loophole though is allowing private contractors to withhold information very clearly in the public interest. Examples of FOIs rejected include the number of prison officers at HMP Birmingham where riots have taken place and whistleblowing policies applying to Virgin Care staff providing NHS services, where the quality of service has been questioned time and again.

The Grenfell Tower fire, which shocked the nation, has also highlighted the need for public access to information held by the providers of social housing. Housing associations, which own or run many former council estates, are completely outside the scope of the FOI act and residents are denied information which they have a right to know.

In one instance a housing association even refused to reveal information to residents about the cause of a fire in a housing association flat and whether potentially toxic lead pipes were used for the water supply to a property.

Making contractors or housing associations accountable for the decisions they make, to the public they serve will lead to better, safer, clearer decisions.

Ultimately though few could disagree with the need for parity for public and private providers when they are delivering public services.  Whether its care homes, prisons, infrastructure projects or welfare, why would we hold private providers to a lower standard of transparency and accountability than the public sector?  If sunlight really is the best disinfectant then here is the chance to clean up the murky world of our outsourced state, to drive up standards, to improve trust and to ensure that it is citizens, not shareholders that are at the heart of our public services.

Louise Haigh is shadow policing and crime minister and was previously shadow cabinet office minister with responsibility for FOI.

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