Private companies and FOI: The G4S failure

The failure by G4S to meet its contractual obligations over providing security staff for the Olympics has brought into sharp focus its role in providing public services.  G4S has a number of public sector contracts including running prisons and being responsible for prisoner transport in a number of areas.  There has, in recent days, been a focus on to what extent these private companies are accountable to the public.  To what degree can councils and other public bodies hold them to account?  How well are they holding them to account?

As the public sector continues to face huge budget cuts and a continued need to save money huge public sector contracts are being offered out to tender and G4S are poised to take many of those contracts.  In England and Wales the private sector is becoming more and more involved in the NHS following the passing of the Health and Social Care Act 2012.  With these big companies having more and more responsibility for providing services which the public rely on and the State has traditionally provided, these questions of accountability are only going to become greater.

If we can learn one thing from the debacle over Olympic security and the failure of G4S is that proper scrutiny is required.  Public bodies (and more importantly the public) should be able to better understand where and how public money is being spent.

There is an argument for these private companies to become directly accountable to the public.  The public cannot elect the officers and executives of the companies in the way they elect Council’s and Governments.  There must be some other way of holding public bodies to account.

It’s not all that popular, but making private companies accountable to the public through Freedom of Information would be an option.  It’s not unheard of though.  There are private companies to whom you can request information from that you might not expect.  For example, anyone who provides certain NHS services under the relevant National Health Service legislation (currently the National Health Service (Scotland) Act 1978; National Health Service Act 2006 and National Health Service (Wales) Act 2006) is subject to FOI.  This currently covers NHS pharmaceutical and Optometry services.  In theory this means everyone from the independent pharmacist/optician to the big providers such as Boots and Tesco are covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.  They are only covered in respect of their NHS pharmaceutical and optometry services.  You couldn’t, for example, as Tesco what expenses their Chief Executive spent in June 2012 were under FOI (well you could, but as it’s not covered you’re unlikely to get a response).

There are other examples of organisations only being partially covered by the Freedom of Information legislation.  The BBC and Channel 4 are two good examples.  Both are covered, but not in respect of information held for the purposes of “journalism, art or literature”.  Partial cover of an organisation isn’t a problem.

The problem with covering private bodies by FOI is a more technical problem.  What would the appropriate limit be under the fee regulations?  Would it be £450 or £600?  Would it be something different?  Would it depend upon who the contract was with?  What about the application of fees?  Would a private body like G4S be more likely to issue fee notes when the estimated costs exceeded £100?  If they were, it might mean they are simply as unaccountable as they are now.

As the way in which public money is spent changes and as the delivery model of public services also changes it is necessary that the principles of accountability and scrutiny move with them.  There is certainly a strong argument for bodies providing public services (especially large ones like G4S) to be covered by FOI.  The question, in my view, is not a “should they” one, but rather a “how do we” one.

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