Select Committee on Public Administration Memoranda


MEMORANDUM 29

Submitted by Group 4

1.  INTRODUCTION

  Group 4 would like to stress at the outset that it welcomes the principle of widening freedom of information. We already hold public service contracts in other countries where freedom of information legislation is on the statute book.

  Our service provision to the public sector in the UK includes managing prisons and detention centres, the escorting of detainees and prisoners between establishments, and a number of manned guarding and other contracts.

  We have a small number of specific concerns about the legislation as currently proposed, which we have outlined in this document. They could be collectively described as issues which we believe lack clarity. We would like to believe that the provisions in the draft Bill will cover them sufficiently, but we are not sure.

2.  COMMERCIAL CONFIDENTIALITY

  As a contractor providing a number of services to the public sector, Group 4 has always recognised its responsibility to be open and accountable and acted accordingly. In many areas, our contracts have been scrutinised in infinite detail by elected representatives, the media, pressure groups, official inspectors and other bodies.

  There are really only two areas where potential disclosure would give us real cause for concern. These are:

    —  some areas of financial detail; and

    —  matters which should be covered by intellectual property rights in terms of creative and innovative ideas.

  We understand the general provisions in the Bill which would protect our commercial interests, and equally we understand the need for transparency, but we are not clear exactly where the dividing line lies.

2.1  Financial details

  Clause 3(4) of the draft Bill says that "nothing in this Act applies to information which is held by the public authority designated by the order but does not relate to the provision of those services" [under contract]. Does this, for example, cover financial information provided to the authority, in pursuit of a contract, relating to the contractor's general standing and viability?

  We feel that there is still confusion here between specific contract information and what might be described as corporate information, which we feel might logically be argued to be relevant.

2.2  Intellectual property rights

  In the course of tendering for contracts in the public sector, Group 4 has been a pioneer in certain areas, and therefore our tenders and successful contracts have contained innovative ideas and solutions and methods of achieving these.

  The draft Bill contains a list of Acts which it supersedes in the area of openness, but the list does not contain the Companies Act. Would our intellectual property rights be covered by clause 34(1)—"information is exempt information if it constitutes a trade secret"?

3.  DISCLOSURE REQUIREMENTS IN TENDER INFORMATION

  In our response to the White Paper, we noted that it promised that "appropriate requirements will be included in the individual contracts between public authorities and contractors". We recommended that this initiative be pushed back a stage and that, when tenders are issued for any public sector project, an indication is given by the public authority concerned as to which information it is proposed will be required to be available for disclosure and which will not.

4.  RETROSPECTIVITY

  The Freedom of Information White Paper (December 1997) proposed that the Act should be retrospective. Are we right to assume, although it is not specified, that this is the case? It would assist us in our work for the public sector to know one way or the other.

5.  EXEMPT BODIES

  It is not clear how contractors to exempt bodies are to be treated and would welcome clarification.

June 1999



 
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