Should the Freedom of Information Act be extended to Charities?

Charity Sector

The charity sector has come under heavy scrutiny due to public concerns over how transparent the sector is with their accounts. As a result, it has been proposed that the Freedom of Information Act should be extended to the sector and adhered to by all charities.
With the topic being heavily discussed, the motion was pre-empted in December 2015 where we saw the Cabinet Minister Officer announce he was in favour of all charities complying with the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.  The FOI Act allows the public access to information, which is normally held by the authorities. This is usually done through companies publishing information or members of the public requesting it. The rationale behind the proposition is that charities receive a proportion of the taxpayers’ money to spend on charitable activities; therefore the public has a right to know how this money has been spent.
However, many charities disapprove of the proposal, explaining that it would ‘ultimately harm good causes’ (Chief Executive of Aveco) and that there are already guidelines implemented to increase transparency. The charity sector is regulated by the Charity Commission and an increase in hierarchy would mean more detailed, itemised reports would need to be produced, putting even more pressure on the sector and making it more difficult for the sector to carry out their tasks, harming their chances of fulfilling their public obligations.
On the other hand, the FOI Act may have to be diluted if charities are to be accommodated. With companies having to publicly publish accounts, company information may be given less freely, making the FOI Act ineffective.
David Banisar, of the human rights organisation stated: “The Government’s proposals will lead to more secrecy, less accountability and a more insular and unresponsive Government. It is moving the law from the right to know to the right to no information.”
While saying this, there are arguments in favour of the FOI Act being extended to charities. The main benefit of the Act is its intent to promote openness and transparency. With the sector currently under fire for its inability to be transparent, the FOI could have a positive impact on the sector. MP, Tom Brake stated: “Our democracy is healthier, more resilient and less vulnerable to ambush with tough and challenging FOI laws in place. The bill would strengthen FOI to ensure that no one was above the scrutiny of FOI – not ministers, the private sector, charities, parliament or the royal household.”
An independent review was carried out regarding the change in January. The Bill will now be heard at the Commons on 11 March 2016. If the Bill is to be passed, the FOI act will be applicable to all social enterprises, private companies and charities who work in the public sector.