A Big Mac with extra FOIs, please

McDonald's logo Image copyright bbc

The fast food chain McDonald's could soon find it is having to dispense answers to freedom of information requests as well as the burgers and fries.

The company has been consulted by the government about bringing its role in awarding qualifications under the Freedom of Information Act.

This is part of a wider debate on the blurring demarcation line between public and private responsibilities and how far a legal right for citizens to get access to information can intrude into the private sector.

That's a complex issue which will also be examined in a tribunal hearing on Tuesday about whether privatised water companies have to release data in compliance with the Environmental Information Regulations.

McDonald's is one of over 150 private bodies which award qualifications and are being considered by the Ministry for Justice for inclusion within FOI. The company offers workplace training which has been approved as a nationally accredited vocational qualification.

Public functions

The organisations under consideration include others that provide academic or vocational qualifications recognised by Ofqual, such as exam boards like Edexcel, sporting groups like the Amateur Swimming Association and professional associations like the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. The full list has been obtained by the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

It's all part of the Ministry of Justice's plan to extend freedom of information to a wider range of bodies which may be private themselves but have public functions. It had been previously been reported that this could cover organisations such as the Law Society and the Advertising Standards Authority and harbour authorities, as well as awarding institutions.

Ministers have also indicated an intention to extend FOI to housing associations in England.

In contrast in Scotland the issue has also arisen, but the SNP government has decided not to extend the Scottish FOI law to housing associations, private contractors involved in providing public services, and other parts of the private sector which could be held to have public responsibilities.

'Confidential'

If McDonald's and other UK private sector awarding bodies end up being covered by FOI, that will only extend to questions about their role as awarders of qualifications. It won't provide the public with any greater right to know anything more about the company's food.

I'd like to be able to tell you what McDonald's thinks about this but I can't. The company acknowledges that it has responded to the MoJ consultation, but adds "as this is a closed consultation, the information we have submitted is confidential."

Some people might think this is not exactly within the spirit of openness. But what can be said confidently is that if the burger company is enthusiastic about being made subject to the impositions of the FOI Act, that would make it very unusual.

We don't yet know how the UK government will respond to the outcome of its consultative exercise.

Water pollution

While ministers mull over how to proceed on extending the Freedom of Information Act, a case involving the regulations governing the disclosure of environmental information is to be heard by the Upper Tribunal on Tuesday. The Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) do cover private bodies that carry out functions of public administration, but this can be a difficult criterion to assess.

The angling campaign group Fish Legal is bringing an appeal in a case involving three private water companies, Southern Water, Yorkshire Water and United Utilities.

This follows an earlier case in which the tribunal ruled that the privatised water companies in England and Wales are not covered by the EIR.

Fish Legal has been arguing that this position deprives the public of a necessary legal right to data on water pollution and should be referred to the European Court of Justice, since the EIR implement a European Union directive stemming from the Aarhus Convention on public access to environmental information.

Bureaucracy

The water companies insist they have a good record of releasing environmental data without having to be bound by the regulations. United Utilities says: "We simply feel that subjecting water companies to the regulations would place an unnecessary administrative burden on the sector. The information can be obtained elsewhere, so why add to the bureaucracy?"

In the UK and internationally FOI has proved to a useful tool for making the various facets of the state more accountable to individual citizens. It has not been aimed at increasing the accountability of powerful private organisations.

However, successive and continuing government policies (and again this is an international phenomenon) of privatisation, contracting out, public-private partnerships, the private finance initiative, academy and free schools - all aspects of the private provision of public services - have increasingly entwined the public and private sectors and now focused attention on how far freedom of information should reach.

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