Last night I saw a mention of a budget review consultation being held by the Milton Keynes Council. I’ve idly wondered before about whether spending data could be used to inform these consultations, for example by roleplaying what the effects of a cut to a particular spending area might be at a transactional level. (For what it’s worth, I’ve bundled together the Milton Keynes spending data into a single (but uncleaned) CSV file here and posted the first couple of lines of a data conversation with it here. One of the things I realised is that I still don’t know how to visualise data by financial year, so I guess I need to spend some time looking at pandas timeseries support).
Another transparency/spending data story that caught my eye over the break was news of how Keighley Town Council had been chastised for its behaviour around various transparency issues (see for example the Audit Commission Report in the public interest on Keighley Town Council). Among other things, it seems that the council had “entered into a number of transactions with family members of Councillors and employees” (which makes me think that an earlier experiment I dabbled with that tried to reconcile councillor names with: a) directors of companies in general; b) directors of companies that trade with a council may be a useful tool to work up a bit further). They had also been lax in ensuring “appropriate arrangements were in place to deal with non-routine transactions such as the recovery of overpayments made to consultants”. I’ve noted before that where a council publishes all its spending data, not just amounts over £500, including negative payments, there may be interesting things to learn (eg Negative Payments in Local Spending Data).
It seems that the Audit Commission report was conducted in response to a request from a local campaigner (Keighley investigation: How a grandmother blew whistle on town council [Yorkshire Post, 20/12/14]). As you do, I wondered whether the spending data might have sent up an useful signals about any of the affairs the auditors – and local campaigners – took issue with. The Keighley Town Council website doesn’t make it obvious where the spending data can be found – the path you need to follow is Committees, then Finance and Audit, then Schedule of payments over £500 – and even then I can’t seem to find any data for the current financial year.
The data itself is published using an old Microsoft Office .doc format:
Getting the data, such as it is, into a canonical form is complicated by the crappy document format, though it’s not hard to imagine how such a thing came to be generated (council clerk sat using an old Pentium powered desktop and Windows 95, etc etc ;-). Thanks to a tip off from Alex Dutton, unoconv can convert the docs into a more usable format (apt-get update ; apt-get install -y libreoffice ; apt-get install -y unoconv); so for example, unoconv -f html 2014_04.doc converts the specified .doc file to an HTML document. (I also had a look at getting convertit, an http serverised version of unoconv, working in a docker container, but it wouldn’t build properly for me? Hopefully a tested version will appear on dockerhub at some point…:-)
This data still requires scraping of course… but I’m bored already…
PS I’m wondering if it would be useful to skim through some of the Audit Commission’s public interest reports to fish for ideas about interesting things to look for in the spending data?
I’ve no idea… Because there aren’t any, apparently: Poor data quality hindering government open data programme. And as I try to make sense of that article, it seems there aren’t any because of UTF-8, I think? Erm…
For my own council, the local hyperlocal, OnTheWight, publish a version of Adrian Short’s Armchair Auditor app at armchairauditor.onthewight.com. OnTheWight have turned a few stories from this data, I think, so they obviously have a strategy for making use of the data.
My own quirky skillset, such as it is, meant that it wasn’t too hard for me to start working with the original council published data to build an app showing spend in different areas, by company etc – Local Council Spending Data – Time Series Charts – although the actual application appears to have rotted (pound signs are not liked by the new shiny library and I can’t remember how to log in to the glimmer site:-(
I also tried to make sense of the data by trying to match it up to council budget areas, but that wasn’t too successful: What Role, If Any, Does Spending Data Have to Play in Local Council Budget Consultations?
But I still don’t know what questions to ask, what scripts to run? Some time ago, Ben Worthy asked Where are the Armchair Auditors? but I’m more interested in the question: what would they actually do? and what sort of question or series of questions might they usefully ask, and why?
Just having access to data is not really that very interesting. It’s the questions you ask for it, and the sorts of stories you look for in it, that count. So what stories might Armchair Auditors go looking for, what odd things might they seek out, what questions might they ask of the data?
Some rambling but possibly associated thoughts… I suggest you put Alice’s Restaurant on…
For some time now, I’ve had an uncomfortable feeling about the asymmetries that exist in the open data world as well as total confusion about the notion of transparency.
Part of the nub of the problem (for me) lies with the asymmetric disclosure requirements of public and private services. Public bodies have disclosure requirements (eg Local Government Transparency Code), private companies don’t. Public bodies disclose metrics and spend data, data that can be used in public contract tendering processes by private bodies against public ones tendering for the same service. The private body uses this information – and prices in a discount associated with not having to carry the cost of public reporting – into the bid. The next time the contract is tendered, the public body won’t have access to the (previously publicly disclosed) information that the private body originally had when making its bid. Possibly. I don’t know how tendering works. But from the outside, that’s how it appears to me. (Maybe there needs to be more transparency about the process?)
Open data is possibly a Big Thing. Who knows? Maybe it isn’t. Certainly the big consulting firms are calling it as something worth squillionty billionty of pounds. I’m not sure how they cost it. Maybe I need to dig through the references and footnotes in their reports (Cap Gemini’s Open Data Economy: Unlocking Economic Value by Opening Government and Public Data, Deloitte’s Open growth: Stimulating demand for open data in the UK or McKinsey’s Open data: Unlocking innovation and performance with liquid information). I don’t know how much those companies have received in fees for producing those reports, or how much they have received in consultancy fees associated with public open data initiatives – somehow, that spend data doesn’t seem to have been curated in a convenient way, or as a #opendatadata bundle? – but I have to assume they’re not doing it to fleece the public bodies and tee up benefits for their other private corporate clients.
Reminds me – I need to read Owen Boswarva’s Who supports the privatisation of Land Registry? and ODUG benefits case for open data release of an authoritative GP dataset again… And remind myself of who sits on the Open Data User Group (ODUG), and other UK gov departmental transparency boards…
And read the FTC’s report Data Brokers: A Call For Transparency and Accountability…
Just by the by, one thing I’ve noticed about a lot of opendata releases is that, along with many other sorts of data, they are most useful when aggregated over time or space, and/or combined with other data sets. Looking at the month on month reports of local spending data from my local council is all very well, but it gets more interesting when viewed over several months or years. Looking at the month on month reports of local spending data from my local council is all very well, but it gets more interesting when looking at spend across councils, as for example in the case of looking at spend to particular companies.
Aggregating public data is one of the business models that helps create some of the GDP figure that contributes to the claimed, anticipated squillionty billionty pounds of financial benefit that will arise from open data – companies like opencorporates aggregating company data, or Spend Network aggregating UK public spending data who hope to start making money selling products off the back of public open data they have curated. Yes – I know a lot of work goes in to cleaning and normalising that data, and that exploiting the data collection as a whole is what their business models are about – and why they don’t offer downloads of their complete datasets, though maybe licenses require they do make links to, or downloads of, the original (“partial”) datasets available?
But you know where I think the real value of those companies lies? In being bought out. By Experian, or Acxiom (if there’s even a hint of personally identifiable data through reverse engineering in the mix), or whoever… A weak, cheap, cop out business model. Just like this: Farmers up in arms over potential misuse of data. (In case you missed it, Climate Corporation was one of the OpenData500 that aggregated shed loads of open data – according to Andrew Stott’s Open Data for Economic Growth report for the World Bank, Climate Corp “uses 60 years of detailed crop yield data, weather observations from one million locations in the United States and 14 terabytes of soil quality data – all free from the US Government – to provide applications that help farmers improve their profits by making better informed operating and financing decisions”. It was also recently acquired by Monsanto – Monsanto – for just under a billion US $. That’s part of the squillionty billionties I guess. Good ol’ open data. Monsanto.)
Sort of related to this – that is, companies buying others to asset strip them for their data – you know all that data of yours locked up in Facebook and Google? Remember MySpace? Remember NNTP? According to the Sophos blog, Just Because You Don’t Give Your Personal Data to Google Doesn’t Mean They Can’t Acquire It. Or that someone else might buy it.
And as another aside – Google – remember Google? They don’t really “read” your email, at least, people don’t, they just let algorithms process it so the algorithms can privately just use that data to send you ads, but no-one will ever know what the content of the email was to trigger you getting that ad (‘cos the cookie tracking, cookie matching services can’t unpick ad bids, ad displays, click thrus, surely, can they?!), well – maybe there are side effects: Google tips off cops after spotting child abuse images in email (for some reason, after initially being able to read that article, my browser can’t load it atm. Server fatigue?). Of course, if Google reads your ads for blind business purposes and ad serving is part of that blind process you accept it. But how does the law enforcement ‘because we can even though you didn’t warrant us to?’ angle work? Does the Post Office look inside the envelope? Is surveillance actually part of Google’s business model?
If you want to up the paranoia stakes, this (from Ray Corrigan, in particular: “Without going through the process of matching each government assurance with contradictory evidence, something I suspect would be of little interest, I would like to draw your attention to one important misunderstanding. It seems increasingly to be the belief amongst MPs that blanket data collection and retention is acceptable in law and that the only concern should be the subsequent access to that data. Assertions to this effect are simply wrong.”) + that. Because one day, one day, they may just find your name on an envelope of some sort under a tonne of garbage. Or an algorithm might… Kid.
But that’s not what this post is about – what this post is about is… Way back when, so very long ago, not so very long ago, there was a license called GPL. GPL. And GPL was a tainting license. findlaw describes the consequences of reusing GPL licensed code as follows: Kid, ‘if a user of GPL code decides to distribute or publish a work that “in whole or in part contains or is derived from the [open source] or any part thereof,” it must make the source code available and license the work as a whole at no charge to third parties under the terms of the GPL (thereby allowing further modification and redistribution).
‘In other words, this can be a trap for the unwary: a company can unwittingly lose valuable rights to its proprietary code.’
Now, friends, GPL scared people so much that another license called LGPL was created, and LGPL allowed you to use LGPL licensed code without fear of tainting your own code with the requirement to open up your own code as GPL would require of it. ‘Cos licenses can be used against you.
And when it comes to open data licenses, they seem to be like LGPL. You can take open public data and aggregate it, and combine it, and mix it and mash it and do what you like with it and that’s fine… And then someone can come along buy that good work you’ve done and do what they want with it. Even Monsanto. Even Experian. And that’s good and right, right? Wrong. The ODUG. Remember the ODUG? The ODUG is the Open Data User Group that lobbies government for what datasets to open up next. And who’s on the ODUG? Who’s there, sitting there, on the ODUG bench, right there, right next to you?
Kid… you wanna be the all-open, all-liberal open data advocate? You wanna see open data used for innovation and exploitation and transparency and all the Good Things (big G, big T) that open data might be used for? Or you wanna sit down on the ODUG bench? With Deloitte, and Experian, and so on…
And if you think that using a tainting open data license so anyone who uses that data has to share it likewise, aggregated, congregated, conjugated, disaggregated, mixed, matched, joined, summarised or just otherwise and anyways processed, is a Good Thing…? Then kid… they’ll all move away from you on the bench there…
Because when they come to buy you, they won’t your data to be tainted in any way that means they’ll have to give up the commercial advantage they’ll have from buying up your work on that open data…
But this post? That’s not what this post is about. This post about holding companies to account. Open data used to hold companies to account. There’s a story to be told that’s not been told about Dr Foster, and open NHS data and fear-mongering and the privatisation of the NHS and that’s one thing…
But another thing is how government might use data to help us protect ourselves. Because government can’t protect us. Government can’t make companies pay taxes and behave responsibly and not rip off consumers. Government needs our help to do that. But can government help us do that too? Protect and Survive.
There’s a thing that DECC – the Department of Energy and Climate Change – do, and that’s publish statistics about domestic energy price statistics and industrial energy price statistics and road fuel and other petroleum product price statistics, and they’re all meaningless. Because they bear little resemblance to spot prices paid when consumers pay their domestic energy bills and road fuel and other petroleum product bills.
To find out what those prices are you have to buy the data from someone like Experian, from something like Experian’s Catalist fuel price data – daily site retail fuel prices – data product. You may be able to caluclate the DECC statistics from that data (or you may not) but you certainly can’t go the other way, from the DECC statistics to anything like the Experian data.
But can you go into your local library and ask to look at a copy of the Experian data? A copy of the data that may or may not be used to generate the DECC road fuel and other petroleum product price statistics (how do they generate those statistics anyway? What raw data do they use to generate those statistics?)
Can you imagine ant-eye-ant-eye-consumer data sets being published by your local council or your county council or your national government that can be used to help you hold companies to account and help you tell them that you know they’re ripping you off and your council off and your government off and that together, you’re not going to stand for it?
Can you imagine your local council publishing the forecourt fuel prices for one petrol stations, just one petrol station, in your local council area every day? And how about if they do it for two petrol stations, two petrol stations, each day? And if they do it for three forecourts, three, can you imagine if they do it for three petrol stations…? And can you, can you imagine prices for 50 petrol stations a day being published by your local council, your council helping you inform yourself about how you’re being manipulated, can you imagine…? (It may not be so hard – food hygiene ratings are published for food retail environments across the England, Northern Ireland and Wales…
So let’s hear it for open data, and how open data can be used to hold corporates to account, and how public bodies can use open data to help you make better decisions (which is a good neoliberal position to take and one which the other folk on the bench tell you that that’s what you want and that and markets work, though they also fall short of telling you that the models say that markets work with full information but you don’t have the information, and even if you did, you wouldn’t understand it, because you don’t really know how to make a good decision, but at the end of the day you don’t want a decision, you just want a good service fairly delivered, but they don’t tell that it’s all right to just want that…)
And let’s hear it for public bodies making data available whether it’s open or not, making it available by paying for it if they have to and making it available via library services so that we can start using it to start holding companies to account and start helping our public services, and ourselves, protect ourselves from the attacks being mounted on us by companies, and their national government supporters, who take on debt, and who allow them to take on debt, to make dividend payouts but not capital investment and subsidise the temporary driving down of prices (which is NOT a capital investment) through debt subsidised loss leading designed to crush competition in a last man standing contest that will allow monopolistic last man standing price hikes at the end of it…
And just remember, if there’s anything you want, you know where you can get it… At Alice’s… or the library… only they’re shutting them down, aren’t they…? So that leaves what..? Google?
A couple of notices taken out in this week’s Isle of Wight County Press by the Isle of Wight Council raise notice that a couple more areas are to become “designated public spaces”, which means that the police and other recognised officers are allowed to confiscate alcohol (no drinking on the beach…).
Despite my best efforts, I failed to find a listing on the Isle of Wight Council website detailing all designated public spaces on the island, or showing maps of their extent. [UPDATE, April 2015: there is a page here – Designated Public Place Orders (DPPOs) that links to notices for each DPPO that contains a PDF map showing the land covered by each order.]
As with other council orders that have a geographical component, I am ever hopeful that appropriate maps will be made available, in the case of designated public places as a shapefile, not least because I generally have no idea what boundaries the notices refer to when they just describe road names and other geographical features (“along the beach to the point in line with the junction of Whitecross Lane and Whitecross Farm Lane”, for example…). The notice does say “as shown on the map to be attached to the Order”, but I can’t readily find the order on the council website to see whether the map has yet been attached (maybe it’s buried in papers relating to licensing committee meetings?) I did manage to find a map (search: designated public place lake/) but only because I read URLs…
Re: finding maps relating to DPPOs, I’ve had this problem before. The same criticisms still apply – the Home OFfice don’t appear to maintain a single register of DPPOs in force, despite the original guidance note saying they would, although they will release the data at a crude level in response to an FOI request. Again, I wonder about setting up an FOI repeater to schedule monthly submissions of the same request to handle this sort of query to the Home Office.
Drawing on the fan in/fan out notion, a Home Office aggregation of the data represents a large fan-in of data from separate councils, and seems to be the easiest place to get hold of such data. However, it would help if they also requested and made available information about the geographical extent of each order as a shapefile.
Here’s the map, though I’m not clear whether I’m breaching copyright in displaying it without permission:
Returning to the notice, I can’t find it displayed on the Isle of Wight County Press website, or on OnTheWight, our hyperlocal blog, despite online fora being legitimate spaces for publishing notices, so I guess buying the County Press is another of those effective taxes I need to pay to keep up with council notices (spending – (click search to run…)).
(As well as posting notices in the IWCP, why doesn’t the council have a /notices area of the website to which it could post its statutory announcements in addition to any other media channels it uses that would act as a convenient, authoritative and archival repository of such notices? [NB quite a few councils do have an area for public notices on their website. For example, do a web search for intitle:"public notices" site:gov.uk] In addition, an area of the site detailing orders in place and in force on the Island so we could keep up with how freedoms are being restricted at any time by the council.)
In passing, whilst trying to find details about DPPOs on the island, I came across a copy of the consultation around the DPPOs on the Gurnard Parish Council website:
The Isle of Wight County Council has received a request from the Hampshire Constabulary to consider the imposition of Designated Public Place Orders (DPPOs) in …”
Hmm… so does the Hampshire Constabulary website list the extent of DPPOs in the region it covers? (I note on WhatDoTheKnow several people have FOId information about DPPOs from police forces.)
I’m pretty sure there’s a DPPO covering Ryde (here’s an example of additional evidence from Hampshire Constabulary offered in support of DPPO in Ryde in 2007 that was use to support an application for an order at that time) but I can’t find any statement about where, or if, such an order applies on the Isle of Wight Council website, or on the appropriate local neighbourhood area of the Hampshire Constabulary site.
So the only way for me to find out is to go round Ryde looking for a signs, and maybe (outside chance) a notice that has a map of the area? Hmm…
PS Just by the by, shapefiles would also help when it comes to working out which bits of the beach I can and can’t walk the dog on…
A piece of contextualisation in an interview piece with Green MP Caroline Lucas in Saturday’s Guardian (I didn’t do this because I thought it was fun) jumped out at me as I read it: More than 50 energy company employees have been seconded to the government free of charge, and dozens of them to the department of energy and climate change.
How about the gov.uk site?
(I don’t know what’s going in the fight between GDS and the data.gov.uk folk ito getting central gov #opendata info discoverable on the web, but the http://www.gov.uk domain seems to be winning out, not least because for departments who’re in that empire, that’s where any data that eventually linked to from data.gov.uk will actually be published?)
So – it seems folk have been FOIing this sort of information, but it doesn’t look as if this sort of information is being published according to a regular schedule under an #opendata transparency agenda.
Anyone would thing that the UK government wasn’t in favour of a little bit of light being shone on lobbying activity…
I guess I could put a request in to the ODUG (Open Data User Group) for this data to be released as open data, but my hunch is it’s not really the sort of thing they’re interested in (I get the feeling they’re not about open data for transparency, but (perhaps unfairly…?!) see them more as a lobbying group (ODUG membership) for companies who can afford to buy data but who would rather the tax payer pays for its collection and the government then gifts it to them).
More direct would be to find a way of automating FOI requests using something like WhatDoTheyKnow that would fire off an FOI request to each central government department once a month asking for that previous months’ list of secondments into and out of that department in the preceding month (or in the month one or two months preceding that month if they need a monthly salary payment cycle or two for that data to become available).
Of course, it does seem a bit unfair that each government department should have to cover the costs of these requests, but as it stands I can’t make an FOI request of companies that choose to engage in this sort of presumably public service.
Making private companies offering public services under contract subject to FOI does seem to be on the agenda again though, after being knocked back around this time last year?:
An extension to the scope of the FOI Act was proposed a few weeks ago in the Public Bill Committee debate of the morning of Tuesday 18 March 2014 on the Criminal Justice & Courts Bill, columns 186-193:
Dan Jarvis: I beg to move amendment 37, in clause 6, page 6, line 29, at end insert—
‘(1A) The Code of Practice must include a requirement that a person carrying out electronic monitoring who is not a public authority as defined by section 3 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 shall provide information in respect of the carrying out of electronic monitoring in the same manner as if they were such a public authority.’.
The Chair: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 38, in schedule 4, page 73, line 25, at end insert—
‘(1A) Where the Secretary of State enters into a contract with another person under paragraph 1(1), and that person is not a public authority for the purposes of section 3 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, that person shall be designated by the Secretary of State as a public authority for the purposes of that section in relation to that contract.’.
I remind the Committee that this group is about freedom of information provisions as they apply to aspects of the Bill. Members will have the opportunity to debate the detail of secure colleges later.
Dan Jarvis: I serve notice that, unless sufficient assurances are received, we intend to put the amendments to a vote. [ Interruption. ] Dramatic! I sensed for a moment that there was a higher authority raising a concern about these amendments, but I shall plough on regardless, confident in the knowledge that they are true and right.
Anyone who knows the story of Jajo the rabbit will understand what I am about to say. For those members of the Committee who do not know, Jajo was the pet rabbit successfully registered as a court translator and then booked in for shifts following the Ministry of
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Justice’s outsourcing of language service contracts. Jajo’s short-lived translation career says less about his talent and much more about the importance of ensuring that public contracts delivered by private providers are properly managed.
As was touched on, Ministers now have to manage another fall-out. Two private providers of electronic monitoring overcharged the taxpayer by millions of pounds for tagging offenders who had died or moved abroad, or who were already back in prison. That underlines the case for the amendments.
Both amendments would seek to bring non-public providers of public services contracted out under the Bill within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. Amendment 37 relates to clause 6 and the code of practice that would be issued by the Secretary of State on the processing of data related to electronic monitoring. It would require anyone carrying out monitoring related to the clauses to comply with FOI requests in the same way as public bodies do. Amendment 38 relates to schedule 4 and the arrangements for contracting out secure colleges, which are detailed in part 2. It would require anyone contracted to provide a secure college to comply with freedom of information in the same way. Both our proposals are worthy of consideration by the Committee.
We all know that the landscape of how public services are delivered is changing. The Government spend £187 billion on goods and services with third parties each year, about half of which is estimated to be on contracting out services. About half of all spending on public services now ends up in private providers’ hands and more and more private providers are bidding to take on the responsibility and financial rewards that come with large-scale public contracts. As outsourcing is stepped up, more and more information about public services and public money is being pulled out of the public domain. That presents a particular challenge that we must tackle.
As the Information Commissioner told the Justice Committee last year,
“if more and more services are delivered by alternative providers who are not public authorities, how do we get accountability?”
The rewards that third parties stand to gain need to go hand in hand with the duties of transparency and information sharing. The public should be able to ask about how, and how well, the service they are paying for is being run.
The Freedom of Information Act does provide for supply-chain companies to be considered to be holding information on behalf of a public authority. In practice, however, contracted providers in the justice sector are not subject to anywhere near the same transparency requirements as publicly-run services. Private prisons, for example, are not subject to FOI in the same way as public prisons and the experience of G4S, Serco and others will have influenced many other companies not to be as forthcoming as they might have been. That is why we need to build freedom of information into the contracts that the Government make with third parties.
The Committee will be aware that such an approach was recommended by the Public Accounts Committee in its excellent report published last week. It made the
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point that many Departments are not providing information on how those contracts work on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. The public will not accept that excuse for much longer.
Let me conclude my remarks by offering the Committee a final quote. Someone once said:
“Information is power. It lets people hold the powerful to account”
and it should be used by them to hold their
“public services to account”.
I agree with the Prime Minister. Two years ago, he spoke about
“the power of transparency”
“why we need more of it.”
He also spoke of leading
“the most transparent Government ever.”
Labour has pledged that the next Labour Government will deal with the issue by bringing companies providing public contracts into the scope of FOI legislation.
Freedom of information can be uncomfortable. It can shed light on difficult issues and be problematic for Government Ministers, but that is the point. The Committee has the opportunity today to improve the Bill and to get a head start.
Dr Huppert: I will not detain the Committee. I share the concern about the lack of FOI for private organisations providing public services. My colleagues and I have expressed concerns about that for many years, and the previous Government were not very good at accepting that. It is good news that the Labour party may undo that error.
Mr Slaughter: Can the hon. Gentleman say what steps he and the coalition have taken to extend FOI in the past four years?
Dr Huppert: Not as many as I would like, but we have seen progress in some areas; we did not see any at all when the hon. Gentleman was a Minister. I hope we will see the correct drive. I share the concern that we need transparency when public services are delivered by private companies. They must not be shielded. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, because he has commented on such issues before.
It is important that the matter should be dealt with on a global scale. I think the shadow Minister would agree that the case is broader. I hope to hear from the Minister that there will be more work to look at how the issue can be addressed more generally, rather than just in a specific case. That would probably require amendment of the Freedom of Information Act. That is probably the best way to resolve the issue, rather than tacking it on to this area, but I absolutely share the concerns. I hope we can see more transparency, both from the Government—we are seeing that—and from the private sector as it performs public functions.
Yasmin Qureshi: The Justice Committee, of which I am a member, looked into the Freedom of Information Act and how it has been operating since it was passed many years ago. We spoke to different groups of people,
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representatives of councils and local authorities, the Information Commissioner and pressure groups. Generally, the view was that the Freedom of Information Act has been a force for good. The thing that people mentioned time and again was the fact that it applies only to public authorities and has a narrow remit in private companies. A lot of concern was expressed about that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central said, just under £200 billion is being spent by the Government for private companies to carry out public work. The number of outsourcings could increase, especially in the criminal justice system. In the probation service there will be contracting out and privatisation, as well as changes in the criminal justice system in relation to legal aid and suchlike. We have concerns about the criminal justice system and the number of companies that will be carrying out work that the state normally does. It is an important issue.
Will the Minister give us an undertaking for whenever Government money is given to carry out work on behalf of the Government? Local authorities and Government Departments have to provide information, and it should be the same for private companies. At the moment, as the shadow Minister mentioned, the agencies providing some of the public work give some information, but it is not enough.
It is often hard to get information from private companies. It is important for the country that we know where public money is being spent and how private companies respond to such things. We can have party political banter, but freedom of information was introduced many years ago and has been working well. Freedom of information needs to be extended in light of the new circumstances. I ask for a clear commitment from the Government that they will encapsulate that in the Bill. They now have that opportunity; the Labour party has said that, if it was in government, it would certainly do so. The lacunae and the gaps would be addressed by the amendment, which would make it clear exactly how the regime applies. [Interruption.]
The Chair: I apologise for the background noise. We are looking into the cause.
Jeremy Wright: Thank you, Mr Crausby. I hope Jajo the rabbit is not responsible.
As the hon. Member for Barnsley Central said, amendment 37 seeks to introduce a requirement as to the contents of the code of practice that the Secretary of State will issue under proposed new section 62B of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, which is to be introduced through clause 6. The Secretary of State would have to include provisions in the code of practice requiring providers of outsourced electronic monitoring services to make information available in the same manner as if they were subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. The aim of the amendment seems essentially to extend the Act to providers of electronic monitoring not already subject to its provisions.
Amendment 38 has the same basic intention in that it seeks to extend the Freedom of Information Act to providers of secure colleges that have entered a contract with the Secretary of State to do so under schedule 4. The approach differs, however, because amendment 38
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would extend the Act directly, whereas amendment 37 seeks to extend its obligations through code of practice guidance.
In other words, both amendments would require private providers not currently subject to the Freedom of Information Act to make information available both in response to FOI requests and proactively through publication schemes. Section 5 of the Act already provides a power to extend the Act’s provisions to contractors providing public services. For reasons I will try to outline, the Government do not currently propose to adopt that approach and are adopting an alternative method to ensure transparency. I am aware, however, of the long-standing and serious concerns raised on the position under the Act of private providers of public services. It might help the hon. Member for Hammersmith to know that the Government are committed to, and have taken steps to extend, the Act. More than 100 additional organisations have been included since 2010, and we are considering other ways in which its scope may be widened.
The issue of outsourced public services was considered in some detail during post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act by the Select Committee on Justice in 2012. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Bolton South East was a member of the Committee of that time, but the Committee rightly issued a reminder that
“the right to access information is crucial to ensuring accountability and transparency for the spending of taxpayers’ money”.
The Committee recommended the use of contractual provisions, rather than the formal extension of the Act, to ensure that transparency and accountability are maintained. In particular, the Committee said:
“We believe that contracts provide a more practical basis for applying…outsourced services than partial designation of commercial companies under section 5 of the Act”.
The Committee also feels that
“the use of contractual terms to protect the right to access information is currently working relatively well.”
The Government’s approach is consistent with that recommended by the Justice Committee.
In addition to information being made available proactively, the Government are taking steps to issue a revised code of practice under section 45 of the Freedom of Information Act to promote transparency on outsourced public services in response to FOI requests. The code of practice will be issued later this year and will promote and encourage the use and enforcement of contractual obligations to ensure that private bodies not subject to the Act provide appropriate assistance where information about outsourced public services is requested from bodies that are subject to the Act.
The Government recognise that only a small amount of information held by private providers is currently often formally subject to the Act. Our code of practice will encourage public authorities to go further, to interpret their freedom of information obligation broadly and to release more information on a voluntary basis, where it would be in the public interest to do so. In the event of non-compliance, it will also be possible for the Information Commissioner to issue and publish a practice recommendation setting out steps that, in his view, the public authority should take to promote conformity with the guidance.
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Mr Slaughter: I seem to remember taking part in the Westminster Hall debate arising out of the Justice Committee’s deliberation and I do not think that it was very happy with the approach that the Government are taking, particularly where they are seeking to restrict freedom of information further. Does the hon. Gentleman accept on the basis of what he has just said that this will not be a level playing field and that the same requirements that apply to public bodies will not apply to private organisations undertaking an effectively identical role? Does he accept that, whatever the merits of his scheme, it does not to far enough and does not address the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central?
Jeremy Wright: The hon. Gentleman will recognise that the organisations we are talking about extending the provisions of the Act to cover vary hugely in size and level of resources. The concern is to draw the appropriate balance between giving correct access to information and not imposing intolerable burdens on organisations, particularly smaller ones. That is the balance that has to be struck. We are looking at ways in which we can continue to make public authorities responsible for supplying information but ensure that it comes from the place where it originated, which may be those other organisations.
Mr Slaughter: That is a different argument and one that is often tried. It was tried in relation to universities and to the smaller district councils much beloved of the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. There are already limitations within the Act. There are safeguards for organisations in terms of the amount of time and cost. Why are they not sufficient?
Jeremy Wright: As I said, there is a balance to be struck. We attempt to strike that balance correctly with our proposals. If I can explain what we want to do a little more fully, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be reassured—although frankly I doubt it. There is an opportunity for us to look at the issue in a sensible way with the code of practice. Applying our forthcoming code of practice guidance across the public sector will ensure that transparency and response to freedom of information requests will be maintained in a consistent way. This is preferable—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge—to the more piecemeal approach promoted by amendments 37 and 38.
The success of our own code of practice will be monitored by the Ministry of Justice and the Information Commissioner. We were clear in our response to post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act that, should this approach yield insufficient dividends, we will consider what other steps are necessary. In summary, we are committed to ensuring transparency in relation to all outsourced public services, including electronic monitoring and secure colleges. We are taking steps to ensure that through the code of practice to be issued later this year. On that basis, I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.
Yasmin Qureshi: The Minister referred to the Select Committee on Justice and its recommendations. As you know, without going into the detail of that discussion, Select Committee recommendations sometimes tend to
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be compromises. At the time, three issues were in the mind of the Select Committee. First, it did not realise that a legislative opportunity would come so soon in which to put the measure in a more codified way with a clearer legal obligation. Secondly, there was quite a lot of discussion about private companies.
The Select Committee accepted that the Freedom of Information Act should not apply to purely private companies carrying out purely private work; it was not really arguing against that. However, here we have an opportunity to codify once and for all in legislation the provision that the FOIA should apply whenever public money is paid to a private company to carry out work. That would be a fairly straightforward provision. I do not see why we need to go down the complicated route of using a code of practice, putting in a specific provision in a new contract each time something happens. Why can we not just have a general provision that applies to every situation?
Jeremy Wright: I was a member of the Justice Committee before the hon. Lady was, so I understand her point that recommendations of the Select Committee are a matter of discussion and compromise. However, they are made on a cross-party basis, and paid all the more attention to for that reason. I quoted directly from the Select Committee’s conclusions in what I said earlier.
On the hon. Lady’s other point, this may be an earlier legislative opportunity than the Select Committee anticipated, but of course, it is only an opportunity in relation to specific policies. Again, I rather agree with the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge: there is an argument for addressing the issue, not on a piecemeal basis, but more comprehensively.
The hon. Lady’s final point is that the approach that we have set out—using a code of practice—is inadequate and that a statutory approach should be introduced by amending primary legislation. An initial approach of using a code of practice is a sensible one. She will recognise that amendment 37, tabled by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, deals with a requirement in a code of practice, not primary legislation. Amendment 38 is different, but in relation to electronic monitoring, on which a number of concerns have been expressed, the hon. Gentleman’s chosen vehicle is a code of practice. The code of practice approach appears to be welcomed by both sides of the Committee.
Dan Jarvis: I have listened carefully to the Minister’s response. Clearly, we will want to look carefully at the detail of what he has said about a code of practice.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South-East that the Committee has an opportunity this morning to make progress on redefining the freedom of information. I have heard the Minister’s response to that point, but the reality is that the move would be popular with the public.
There is no doubt that the landscape in which public services are delivered is changing. The Opposition have pledged to reform freedom of information if we are in government from 2015. I am mindful of the Prime Minister’s comments, which I quoted earlier. He said:
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“Information is power. It lets people hold the powerful to account”,
and it should be used by them to hold their public services to account.
Mike Kane: Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the contracting out of public services expands, the public’s right to information shrinks?
Dan Jarvis: I agree absolutely. There is a degree of inevitability that we will see change in the area. The debate is about how we do it, and it is important that we have that debate. We have tabled the amendments partly so that we can take the opportunity to debate such issues.
Mr Slaughter: There is another point here, which is that the Ministry of Justice is particularly vulnerable on the issue. We have had the privatisation of the probation service and the scandals regarding tagging. We will come to later in the Bill to proposals about the externalisation of the collection of fines and other matters. First, that is going on wholesale in the Department, and secondly, it is defective in many aspects. It is particularly relevant that the Minister should accept that the proposals in the Bill are not sufficient.
Dan Jarvis: My hon. Friend is right. In the context of the delivery of public services within the Ministry of Justice remit, this is a particularly relevant, timely and important issue. It has been incredibly useful to have the opportunity to debate it owing to the tabling of the amendments.
I mentioned that I was mindful of the Prime Minister’s comments, and I am mindful of the fact that the Justice Secretary has also indicated a desire to reform freedom of information. Given that there is a general acknowledgment that the status quo is not acceptable and despite what the Minister has said in response to our amendment, I will press it to a vote.
The amendment was defeated.
An hour or so later, the government took this line:
Freedom of Information Act
23. Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): What plans he has to bring forward legislative proposals to expand the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Simon Hughes): There has been good progress in extending the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act because the coalition Government pledged to extend its scope to provide greater transparency. We extended it in 2010 to academies, in 2011 to the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Financial Ombudsman Service and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, and last year to 100 companies wholly owned by more than one public authority. The next item on the agenda is to do with Network Rail, and we are awaiting a view from the Department for Transport as to whether it thinks it would be appropriate for that to be implemented this year.
Lindsay Roy: What benefits have accrued to the Government and citizens from the implementation of the Act, and when does the Minister plan to extend its scope further?
Simon Hughes: We intend to extend it further as soon as is practical. One specific issue that I hope will be of interest to the hon. Gentleman—as it is to colleagues of his, including those who have come to see me about it—is that we intend to publish a revised code of practice to make sure that private companies that carry out public functions have freedom of information requirements in their contracts and go further than that. We hope that that will be in place by the end of this year.
Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): There is one area where the Minister should perhaps look at narrowing the scope of the Act, because my understanding is that requests can be made by anybody anywhere on the face of the earth; they do not have to be British citizens. It is not the role of the British Government to be a taxpayer-funded research service for anyone on the globe. May I suggest that he narrow the scope to those for whom the Government work—citizens of our country?
Simon Hughes: I well understand my hon. Friend’s point. There will be two consultations this year: first, on precisely such issues about the scope of the current legislation to make sure that it is not abused while we retain freedom of information as a principle of Government; and secondly, on extending it to other areas where we have not gone so far.
Dr Huppert:I read out the quote from someone who has made the position clear when it comes to private companies carrying out public functions. Indeed, the code of practice has exactly the wording used in amendment 11, which the hon. Gentleman supported when we debated it on Tuesday. I do not want to take up too much of the Chairman’s kindness to discuss an issue that was rejected at that point, but it is happening as we wanted.
The matter was also touched upon a couple of days later in a Public Bill Committee on the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill (Official Report, Thursday 20 March 2014, 257-259) where accountability around public contracts delivered by private provides was being discussed:
Mr Slaughter: Absolutely not. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has read the article about Jago the rabbit that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and I wrote for The Independent yesterday [It’s time we extended Freedom of Information to public services run by private companies – just ask Jago the Rabbit], which dealt with what should be done, which is to bring these companies within the ambit of FOI, and what the Minister of State did—with his usual skill, shall we say?—at Justice questions on Tuesday. He implied that that was what was going to happen, whereas in fact he was doing nothing more than putting round the line that the Cabinet Office has already indicated.
If I am wrong about that, I will give way in a moment and the hon. Gentleman can come back to me, but my understanding is that the Government—both parts of it, as long as they are just about coalescing—are of the view that the contracts that are drawn up should include this notional transparency. That is to say that they will encourage public authorities to encourage private companies to put clauses into contracts that will expose as much as possible, within the realms of commercial confidentiality. So the contracts will be open, with publication on websites and so forth of as much information about the contract as the two parties think fit. What we will not have is a duty on those private companies—in so far as they are carrying out public functions—to comply with the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, as would be the case in the public sector.
I accept that they are two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, of course it is a good idea that the information is made available voluntarily, but if it is not—either because the company does not choose to do so or because the contract is not drafted sufficiently well to ensure that it must—the citizen must have the right, through FOI, to require that information to be made available. As far as I am concerned, that is not what was said on Tuesday. I know that there is consultation going on, but if it is the intention of the Government—at least the Liberal Democrat part of the Government—to follow the line taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), the shadow Lord Chancellor, which he has repeated often in recent months, and require all those private companies performing public functions to come within the requirements of the Freedom of the Information Act, I would be pleased if the hon. Gentleman said so now.
Mr Slaughter:I take from that comment that even the hon. Gentleman does not understand what the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, says, so opaque is it. If nobody, including the Minister, is going to answer my question, the answer will no doubt come out in the wash on a later occasion. However, it seems to me that that is not what is being promised. If it were, the Minister would be jumping up and claiming credit for it, but he is not. Therefore, I assume that that is not the case.
The significance of that is that those four companies about which I have just raised doubts—G4S, Serco, Capita, and we can safely add Atos—all told the Public Accounts Committee that they were prepared to accept the measures that the Committee proposed. It therefore appears that the main barrier to greater transparency lies within Government.
That is where we are. Even the companies that want to put themselves and the interests of their shareholders first are more keen on transparency and on answering the legitimate questions that are being asked by everyone— from ourselves to the chief inspector of prisons—than this Government are.
I say that because if we are to take this further leap down that path, it is only right that the Government do not just challenge, as the Minister has said, acknowledged frauds, but look at the entire performance behaviour, as well as the number of available companies that could step into the breach and deal with these matters.
What we must conclude from the conjunction of clauses 17 and 18 is that, first, the Government are prepared to take this leap in the dark, in terms of the reconfiguration of the youth estate and, secondly, that they are prepared to leave that entirely in the hands of the people who failed so many times in so many contracts, not least in running parts of the adult prison service.
For more on some of the specifics, see the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report on “Contracting out public services to the private sector”, which for example recommended “that the Cabinet Office should explore how the FOI regime could be extended to cover contracts with private providers, including the scope for an FOI provision to be included in standard contract terms; that neither the Cabinet Office nor departments should routinely use commercial confidentiality as a reason for withholding information about contracts with private providers; [and that] The Cabinet Office should set out a plan for departments to publish routinely standard information on their contracts with private providers”.
There’s also a couple of related private members bills floating around at the moment – Grahame Morris’ empty Freedom of Information (Private Healthcare Companies) Bill 2013-14 “to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to apply to private healthcare companies”, and Caroline Lucas’ Public Services (Ownership and User Involvement) Bill 2013-14 “to put in place mechanisms to increase the accountability, transparency and public control of public services, including those operated by private companies”. The latter >a href=”http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2013-2014/0160/cbill_2013-20140160_en_2.htm#l1g5″>proposes:
(1) Where a relevant authority starts the process of procurement for a public services contract, it must make available to the public details of all bids received prior to the conclusion of the procurement exercise.
(2) Where a relevant authority enters into a public services contract, details of that contract shall be made available to the public within 28 days of the procurement decision.
6 Freedom of information
(1) The Secretary of State must designate as a public authority, pursuant to section 5(1)(b) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, companies or other bodies which enter into a public services contract.
(2) “Public services contract” has the meaning contained within section 8 of this Act.
(3) The Secretary of State shall maintain a list of companies designated under section 6(1) of this Act.
(4) Requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in respect of such companies or bodies can only be made in respect of information relevant to the provision of a public services contract.
(5) The Secretary of State must designate as a public authority, pursuant to section 5(1)(b) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, any utility company subject to regulation by regulatory authorities as defined in section 8.
Finally, on the accountability and transparency thing, there’s a consultation on at the moment regrading “smaller authorities with an annual turnover not exceeding £25,000, including parish councils, [who] will be exempt from routine external audit” but instead will be subject to a transparency code (Draft transparency code for parish councils – consultation).
Related: Spending & Receipts Transparency as a Consequence of Accepting Public Money? If you accept public money for contracts that would otherwise be provided by a public service you should be subject to the same levels of FOI and transparency reporting. Why should public services have to factor this in to their bids for running a service when private companies don’t?
One of the many things I’d like to spend my time doing is tinkering with data journalism doodles relating to local news stories. For example, via our local hyperlocal blog, I saw this post announced today: Isle of Wight has highest percentage of secondary school absentee rates in country. The post included a link to a Department for Education page (Pupil absence in schools in England, including pupil characteristics) containing links to the statistical release and the associated data sets:
Here’s what we get in the zipped datafile:
The school level dataset had the following column headings:
Year, country_code, country, GOR, GOR_code, LA, new_LA_code, LA_Name, URN, Estab, LAEstab, School_name, School_type, Academy_Flag, Academy_open_date, enrol_sum, SessionsPossible_sum, OverallAbsence_sum, AuthorisedAbsence_sum, UnauthorisedAbsence_sum, overall_absence_percent, auth_absence_percent, unauth_absence_percent, PA_15_sum, possible_sessions_pa_15_sum, overall_abs_pa_15_sum, auth_abs_pa_15_sum, unauth_abs_pa_15_sum, overall_absence_percent_PA_15, auth_absence_percent_PA_15, unauth_absence_percent_PA_15, sess_auth_illness, sess_auth_appointments, sess_auth_religious, sess_auth_study, sess_auth_traveller, sess_auth_holiday, sess_auth_ext_holiday, sess_auth_excluded, sess_auth_other, sess_auth_totalreasons, sess_auth_unclass, sess_unauth_holiday, sess_unauth_late, sess_unauth_other, sess_unauth_noyet, sess_unauth_totalreasons, sess_unauth_unclass, sess_overall_totalreasons
We can guess at what some of these refer to, but what, for example, do the “PA 15″ columns refer to? In this case, what we really should do is look up the actual definitions, which are described in the metadata description document; a document that just happens to be a Microsoft Word 2007 formatted document…
…a document that doesn’t play nicely either with the copy of Word I have on my Mac:
…or the converter that the Google docs uploader uses:
In cases such as this, particularly where there are mathematical equations that often have very specific layout requirements, it can be “safer” to use a document format such as PDF that more reliably captures the appearance of the original page. (If we were really keen on reproducibility, we might also suggest that the equations were made available in an executable form, such as programme code or even as a spreadsheet (I’m not sure “Microsoft equations” are executable?).)
I gave myself a couple of hours to have a quick look through some of the data, but as it is I’ve spent an hour or so looking for ways of reading the metadata description document along with writing up my frustration around not being able to do so… Which is time spent not making sense of the data, or, indeed, its metadata…
PS in passing, I note the publication of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee 37th report, Whole of Government Accounts 2010-11 again picks up on the way in which government data releases often fall short in terms of their usability (for example, this week MPs call for greater use of Whole of Government Accounts; see also last August Government must do better on transparency, say MPs).
PPS Here’s the solution I used in the end – Skydrive, Microsoft’s online storage/doc viewing play:
As it turns out, the equations could easily have been written using simple text strings…
PPPS as to the “15” columns, the metadata files describes them along the following lines:
PA_15_sum Number of enrolments classed as persistent absentees (threshold of 15 per cent)
possible_session_pa_15_sum Sessions possible for persistent absentees (threshold of 15 per cent)
Which means what exactly?!
Some time ago, in the post Using Aggregated Local Council Spending Data for Reverse Spending (Payments to) Lookups, I described a way of looking at local council spending data based on how much different councils spent with each other.
This technique generalises within and across sectors, so for example we could look at how hospitals spend money with each other, or how police authorities spend money with each other. In this way, we can get a picture of how public bodies buy -and sell – services off each other. The mappings don’t have to relate to spend, either – we could equally well use this sort of model to see how hospitals transfer patients to one another, or how mental health or social care services offer out-of-area cover to each other, or how councils and housing trusts manage transfers between each other.
The insight that lets us produce this sort of view is that we have entities of a particular sort (hospitals, for example, or local councils), entering into transactions with other entities of the same sort. If these sorts of entity all operate under the same transparency rules, a requirement to publish outgoing (spend) transactions, for example, then we can recreate incoming (receipt) transactions from each entity of the same sort. For example, if local councils are required to publish details of spend over £x, then we can also learn how much councils received from other local councils by means of transactions over £x.
As the UK Government at least seems hell bent on getting markets established in the delivery of public services, markets that can include private companies, then we are faced with a possible asymmetry in transparency information.
The public should be able to hold local councils to account about the services they provide. To do this, people need information about what decisions local councils are taking, and how local councils are spending public money.
And from the NHS:
As part of the government’s commitment to greater transparency, there is a requirement to publish online each NHS organisation’s expenditure over £25,000. In accordance with the requirement NHS Direct publish this on the basis of payments made in each calendar month.
For example, if hospital A buys significant services off hospital B, and must report that spend under transparency legislation, we can build up a picture not only relating to A’s spend, but also B’s sale of services, because A’s data relating to spend with B is openly available; which means B’s receipts from A are also available. (In this example, if items can be itemised as less than £25k per item, then this form of reporting under transparency guidelines is not required.)
If hospital A now buys service of company C, then we can look up spend from hospital A to get a picture of how much public money is flowing out to the private sector and into company C. That is, we can get an idea of company C’s receipts from openly published hospital spending data. (Of course, games could be played with itemisation – 10 treatments at £3k a treatment would result in a ‘must declare’ spend of £30k on the course of treatment, but an undeclarable £3k per treatment if billing is organised that way.)
But what if company C buys services off hospital B (maybe even subcontracting services it was contracted to deliver by hospital A)? If the spend data of company C is not subject to transparency requirements, and the receipt data from the hospital is not publicly available, we lose sight of how money is being spent within and across the public service.
Whilst private companies may balk at being required to publish details of their own spending data, we might still be able to recreate a picture of their spend with public services by requiring public bodies to also publish receipts data, along with the current requirement to publish spend data?