The Times has picked up the Eastern Daily Press story about how commercial firms’ use of the Freedom of Information Act. For some reason, they kept the angle that this somehow constitutes “abuse” of the open government law.
Although the private sector is entitled to make the requests, the legislation was introduced to give the public more access to information about Whitehall and public services.
The media is also able to ask for information under the laws but this is generally shared with the public. The NHS Confederation said yesterday that many NHS managers were having to spend time deciding whether information was too commercially sensitive to release.
After a small survey of NHS trusts, the NHS Confederation, which represents managers, said that one in six hospitals had reported concerns about the level of interest from the private sector.
The confederation said that the private sector represented between a fifth and a quarter of all FoI demands to the trusts surveyed: “We are concerned about the extra burden placed on staff. Most hospitals do not have special FoI officers so the requests are dealt with by existing managers. We will be monitoring the situation carefully.”
This is nonsense: FOIA is requester-neutral. There is no test for why a requester wants information from the government. In fact, one of the major economic arguements in favour of open government is that the private re-use of public sector information is a way of fostering a knowledge economy.
Where the NHS organisations have a point is that FOIA didn’t provide any extra resources to public sector organisations to reply to requests. But the fact that commercial requests are tying up resources is no less legitimate than if the requests were coming from journalists.
On the other hand, the public sector, including the NHS, had four years to prepare for FOIA. A cursory glance at other countries that already have FOI laws would have alerted them to the fact that commercial queries about contracts would be one of the most common types of requests.