The government must ensure public sector bodies like NHS trusts are not hampered by Freedom of Information (FoI) rules and can compete on a “level playing field” with private providers, say MPs.
The recommendation by the Justice Select Committee was welcomed by foundation trust leaders who said trusts were disadvantaged by the fact private companies competing for NHS contracts were using FoI requests.
“FTs are having to respond to an increasing number of FoI requests about their activities either from direct competitors or companies compiling information to sell to those pitching for NHS contracts,” said Sue Slipman, chief executive of the Foundation Trust Network. “This is not a good use of NHS resources and puts FTs at a disadvantage.”
The committee urged government to keep the issue under review given “increasing contracting out of public services”.
“There is a strong public interest in competition between public and private sector bodies being conducted on a level playing field to ensure the best outcome for the taxpayer,” said its report.
Meanwhile commissioners should ensure private providers of NHS services were also complying with FoI law and contracts must be “explicit and enforceable in stipulating FoI obligations”.
The review highlighted problems faced by NHS organisations which have seen an increase in both the number and complexity of FoI requests leading to increased costs.
The Foundation Trust Network said a small trust would spend about £50,000 a year. However, trusts are able to turn down FoI requests if they would require more than 18 hours of staff time to answer. The network welcomed another committee recommendation to reduce this to 16 hours.
Other challenges include dealing with “persistent FoI-ers”. Lancashire Care Trust told the committee it had to respond to “a number of vexatious or serial requests” and on several occasions those seeking information had become “openly aggressive in their requests” and harassed staff.
However, MPs also heard from trusts also said the legislation had increased openness and helped improved accountability in the NHS.
“While the act may not have had a direct impact on increasing public participation in decisions made in the NHS, it has assisted in a move towards a culture of greater public involvement,” said the committee’s report, which concluded FoI “burdens were outweighed by the benefits”.
It also said there were occasions when it was appropriate for ministers to veto FoI requests to ensure a “safe space” for high-level policy discussions.
The most recent example was when health secretary Andrew Lansley blocked the disclosure of the risk register relating to last year’s health bill.