The Prime Minister has said he is “not at all sure” about extending the Freedom of Information Act to private providers who are given billions of pounds of public money for services. 

He was challenged by Labour MP Margaret Hodge at a House of Commons Liaison committee meeting on March 12. He was broadly challenged on two topics, ‘Protecting the public’ which focussed on the Government’s accountability and developments on Britain’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Keeping on message with his government’s line Cameron said he prefers transparency from public authorities and private providers operating under public contracts, rather than having to extend the Freedom of Information Act.

Hodge told the Conservative party leader that her committee needed to be easily able to follow the “taxpayers’ pound” when it is being used by  private providers increasingly providing public services including G4S, Serco, Capita and A4e.

She said: “All too often we come up against either commercial confidentiality or, indeed, Departments insisting that the people with whom they have signed contracts do not actually give that information over to the public.

“The Work programme is a case in point.”

Her suggestions to Cameron on how to follow the money included the suggestion, raised by the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham that “we could extend the powers of freedom of information into where private providers are providing contracts funded through taxpayers’ money.”

In response Cameron told the committee that he would look at all of her suggestions and that there are always going to be issues of confidentiality when using the private sector for public works.

“If you want to open up public sector procurement to private organisations, there are going to be occasions when there will be issues of confidentiality.

“I am not at all sure about extending FOI further. I think that transparency on the way in is better than endless information requests on the way out.

Earlier this year the junior Justice Minister Helen Grant said the government is looking reduce the “burdens” and overall cost of the FOI act to public authorities. This included not extending the act to private companies working on public services but making their contacts contain transparency clauses.

However this was the first time the Prime Minister has commented on the issue himself.

The Labour MP specifically questioned Cameron on the Work programme: “There is the issue around A4e and the Work programme, which we spent some time on.

“It was very difficult to get DWP to say what level of fraud or inaccuracy meant that the provider was not fit for purpose. I just think that transparency-“

Cameron interrupted warning about over-regulating processes and said: “Let’s take the Work programme as a “for instance”- better than having endless deep dives into what is actually more published information. As I said, I would prefer that to the FOI process.”

The Campaign for Freedom of Information took a dim view on the PM’s statement and Tweeted that in some cases it will be “insufficient.”

The Hansard transcript of David Cameron’s questioning by the Liaison committee can be found here on Hansard. 

I am a journalist and author. I am a journalist at the UK edition of WIRED magazine. In 2015, my first book Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, was published. My second book Reed Hastings: Building Netflix, was published in March 2020. I created FOI Directory in 2012 and have maintained it in my spare time ever since.