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Deputy Labour leader, Tom Watson: Make private firms answer to FOIs

Sandwell | News | Published:

Private companies providing public services should be forced to answer questions under the Freedom of Information Act, Labour deputy leader Tom Watson has said.

The West Bromwich East MP says he will resist any attempts to water down the law, which requires public bodies to be open and transparent and has helped expose government scandals.

A panel of former ministers and civil servants is reviewing the Act, which helped uncover the MP's expenses scandals and embarrasses the government and councils by making them reveal details of waste and incompetence.

But Mr Watson revealed he wanted to see the Act strengthened and widened to include private companies as well, if they are doing public service work.

He also wants to see the government's new wave of free schools, which are publicly funded but independent of local authority oversight, made to release information. Mr Watson said: "I've got the shadow cabinet office brief and it's one of the things I'll be looking at.

"Here's a commission currently to review the FOI Act and that will mean they will almost inevitably propose to diminish the powers.

"I don't think the Act is strong enough.

"I want to see more public bodies covered by the act. I want to see any private provider of a public service covered by the act because the other excuse is commercial confidentiality and I think that's a cop out."

Asked if he meant the likes of G4S, which runs immigration services and even prisons like Wolverhampton's HMP Oakwood, he said: "Precisely G4S. Or a free school in Sandwell. Free schools, because they're businesses, do not fall in the net of the Act.

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Wolverhampton's HMP Oakwood

Free schools are only covered by the FOI Act once they are established, but not while they are in the process of being set up.

"Then there are things in the Act that should be strengthened," Mr Watson said.

"They are obliged to give you an answer in a set period of time.

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"But then, if their answer is inadequate and you ask for an internal appeal, they can string it out for months and months and months.

"I think there should be a statutory obligation to do the appeal in a fixed period of time. It should be good and timely. That's what a good open government policy should be about."

All would still be subject to the same protections and exemptions that the FOI Act provides to public bodies to prevent personal data from being revealed.

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