Businesses that provide public utilities such as power and water may be subject to the Freedom of Information Act under reforms proposed by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg today.
Clegg said the reforms are “part of our wider project to resettle the relationship between people and government”.
“Recent years have seen some progress on transparency, most notably through the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act,” he said. “But that progress has stalled. The Freedom of Information Act was a good start, but it was only a start.”
Clegg proposed that the Act, which requires central and local government authorities to publish information upon request by the public, should be extended to include regulators such as the Advertising Standards Agency and providers of essential public services such as Network Rail and utility companies.
There has been some legal debate over whether utility providers are subject to a piece of legislation that is simiilar to the FOI Act, namely the Environmental Information Regulations. Introduced in 2005, these regulations oblige “public authorities” to provide information about their impact on the environment on request.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has itself waivered on the matter. In 2007, then commissioner Richard Thomas ruled that Sutton and East Surrey Water plc was subject to the Regulations, because water companies are appointed to provide their services by the government, and therefore represent a “public function”.
In 2010, however, current commissioner Christopher Graham ruled that while utility companies may be “public functions”, they do not serve a “public administrative function”, and that they should therefore be exempt.
These are questions that may impact the proposals Clegg made today as they are debated in parliament.