The MoJ’s plan to consider opening up contract details to FOI requests is to be applauded, but may hit the bottom line

Joey Gardiner

So A statement this week by the Ministry of Justice - that it will consider opening up details of government contracts with private contractors to Freedom of Information (FOI) - is sure to raise concerns with contractors. From a journalist’s point of view it would be a dereliction of duty to not make clear our support for the FOI law. Openness is the life blood of a functioning media, and therefore a functioning democracy.

Arguably a large part of the public backlash to PFI, which has seen this valuable method of financing public projects all but disappear from the public sector’s funding options, has been due to public suspicion over secret contracts with firms that do not put themselves up for election, or scrutiny. And companies should have little concern that their trade secrets will suddenly be revealed to a feral media. The public sector is already adept at using existing exemptions under FOI laws (including commercial confidentiality) to sidestep requests. Most of what comes out is harmless, and unarguably in the public interest.

The Ministry of Justice is not about to do anything straight away. The genuine concern, if it did bring in FOI, would be the overheads that it creates. Senior public sector officials today complain they spend a disproportionate amount
of time dealing with FOI requests, creating a management burden which is itself a huge expense. Private companies will quickly realise this, and simply price this in to their bids. The reality is that the government would have to accept that greater transparency will come at a cost.

Joey Gardiner, deputy editor