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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Freedom of Information

Scotland's Freedom of Information Commissioner publishes her first annual report today. There was some trepidation when Kevin Dunion left the post that his replacement may not be as fearless a champion of the public's right to know. However, these concerns were misplaced as Rosemary Agnew has already shown a willingness to tackle difficult issues. It is almost always a sign that you are doing your job when the Scottish Government is dragging you to the Court of Session!

Entertaining though the spat over the mere existence of legal advice on EU accession is, the underlying concerns are there for all to see in her annual report. Despite the Commissioners measured tones, it is clear that she is receiving more complaints about failure to disclose, often on technical grounds. As this morning's Scotsman leader says, Holyrood started well on FoI. The Scottish legislation was stronger than the equivalent English Act and this reflected a desire to do things differently in the new legislature.

Sadly in recent years, the Scottish Government in particular, has wriggled at every opportunity to avoid politically embarrassing disclosures. Even wasted huge amounts of taxpayers cash on appeals, simply to delay disclosure to a politically more convenient time. I have noticed this drift in our own FoI requests. Another weakness has been the poor application of the review system. Senior civil servants who are clearly simply going through the motions, rather than properly questioning their colleagues decisions. This is obvious from the absence of qualitative reasons for their decisions.

So where do we go from here? The Scottish Parliament has an opportunity with the Freedom of Information Bill to make a stand and rehabilitate FoI in Scotland. They should take the initiative and introduce further amendments to the Government’s Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill. As the Campaign FoI Scotland has argued the biggest loophole in the legislation’s coverage is the exemption of non-public bodies, such as private contractors, large voluntary organisations, housing associations and arms-length  organisations (ALEOs). In essence if you accept the public pound, you have to accept public transparency.

 I emphasise that this also applies to the commercial end of the voluntary sector. Their pressure appears to be driving an ambiguous response from SCVO. They should be standing up for FoI in the interests of the wider voluntary sector. Not the narrow commercial interests of a few big care providers.

As Carole Ewart, Co-convener of the CFoIS told the Finance Committee:
“In Scotland we should focus on whether people’s right to know is as effective in 2012, as it was in 2002 when the law was passed, and 2005 when it came into force. Clearly the answer is No. Private companies and other third-party bodies are increasingly being used by the public sector to deliver public services. There are over 130 arms-length organisations in Scotland today. If these bodies are not covered by Freedom of Information  (FoI) law, then we are all effectively debarred from asking them how they spend our money.”

The Scottish Information Commissioner also supports extended coverage, and commissioned an opinion poll that showed 83% of people support extending FoI coverage to private companies who build and maintain schools and hospitals, and 82% support extension to housing associations.

Strong Freedom of Information law is the hallmark of a strong democracy. It's also a measure of good government. Scotland is falling behind, but we have an opportunity to recover, if MSPs have the bottle to grasp the nettle.

1 comment:

  1. I have been involved in many FoI requests on both sides of the table and we really do need to get a grip. Your point about the review process is interesting and not often made. Probably a bit much to expect it to deliver anything significant, but I haven't seen much evidence of difficult questions being asked.