When Rachel Reeves declared this week that it was time to take back control of public services from the contractors and consultants who have ripped them off, a lot of cheers went up. One was from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, a small but dogged and effective organisation that, under the leadership of Maurice Frankel, made the case for the Freedom of Information Act – enacted by a Labour government 20 years ago – and has fought to protect and expand it ever since.
In her speech, Rachel called for an “expansion of the Freedom of Information Act to be applied to all new public service contracts delivered by private companies”. This is exactly what my freedom of information (extension) bill proposed three years ago, until it was suffocated by a combination of Tory filibustering and government objection. Under Maurice’s guidance, we were trying to make the biggest change in access to information since 2000 by bringing the almost £300bn of outsourced contracts, a third of all public spending, within the scope of the Act.
There have been plenty of terrible examples of private contractor failures to make the case for such a change – in the NHS, the prison system and social housing to name but three. One of the worst examples, which Rachel highlighted in her time as chair of the business, energy and industrial strategy committee, was the collapse of Carillion. While the public have no right to know details of commercial gain or financial mismanagement by contractors, the public sector and the taxpayer always picks up the bill.
But previous malpractice pales in comparison to the Covid-19 contract bonanza. We have had some peaks under the curtain: consultants on £7,000 a day; hundreds of firms employing thousands of management consultants costing hundreds of millions of pounds. Tendering processes are still being waived, even though we are a year into the crisis. And this is just a snapshot of the whole. £22bn has been spent or set aside for test and trace alone. What is the total expenditure on contracts and consultants and – above all – what are they all doing?
I started trying to find some answers last September. Foolishly, I thought it would be quicker to use parliamentary questions. One downside to freedom of information requests is that reluctant public bodies can string out answering questions by weeks and often months. ‘Named day questions’ in parliament are supposed to be answered within five days. Five months later, I am still waiting for the most tantalising information, though we have had some success.
The beauty of the Freedom of Information Act is that any citizen can use it, and there are plenty of online guides to help the novice sleuth. Even if you are stymied by a reluctant government department, there is a right of appeal to the independent commissioner and tribunal.
This is not a matter of principle – that argument was fought and won 20 years ago when the Act gave us the right to know what is happening in public institutions paid for by, and serving, the public. Open government and scrutiny, it was accepted, leads to better government. This is about a massive loophole in the law that allows public bodies to avoid such scrutiny by contracting out and allowing the corporations running their services to plead ‘commercial sensitivity’.
If a contract does not give the authority the right to obtain that information from the contractor, the public has no right to it from the authority. By transferring a public service to a private contractor, members of the public lose their right to properly scrutinise the service being provided.
Eventually, the secrets of the Covid contracts will out. Whether though an inquiry, the work of Commons committees or whistleblowers. When the full extent is known, let’s hope one positive outcome is that the call for all providers of public services to be open to public examination becomes irresistible.
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