Scottish Government is worst offender over FoI

Freedom of information gives the public a legal right to information about taxpayer-funded Scottish public �authorities. Picture: Neil Hanna
Freedom of information gives the public a legal right to information about taxpayer-funded Scottish public �authorities. Picture: Neil Hanna
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THE Scottish Government has the worst record of any body in the country at dealing with its own flagship freedom of information laws, figures have indicated.

Information commissioner Rosemary Agnew has now written to the government’s FoI unit to establish what has gone wrong.

Across Scotland, there has been a 14 per cent rise in ­appeals to decisions taken by public bodies in response to FoI ­requests, Ms Agnew’s annual ­report shows.

More than a quarter (27 per cent) of these are down to ­authorities not responding to requests inside the legal time limit of 20 days.

Ms Agnew said: “The number of requests that are not ­answered in time that end up in appeals is unacceptably high, ­because it’s the one area that ­really is within the gift of the ­authority to get right.”

She added: “Eight years on from the introduction of FoI, we would expect authorities to be more effective at handling ­requests, not less so.

“When they don’t respond, authorities fail to respect people’s legal rights to information – information which can be very important to individuals and communities.”

Failure to respond to requests is damaging public confidence, according to the report, with fewer than half of Scots (49 per cent) confident they would get a response to an FoI request inside 20 days.

Freedom of information was enshrined in Scots law in 2005 and gives the public a legal right to information about taxpayer-funded Scottish public ­authorities.

It means people can demand details about how public cash is spent, and issues such as hospital waiting times and cuts to ­services.

The figures, released today, indicate that it is the public at large that makes most use of FoI laws, accounting for 62 per cent of ­appeals, with public bodies themselves responsible for a ­further 19 per cent.

The proportion of appeals against the Scottish Government has almost doubled from 16 per cent two years ago to 31 per cent. The country’s 32 local councils, when taken together, are subject to 43 per cent of appeals.

The Scottish Government, which has a dedicated FoI unit, also accounts for 29 per cent of appeals on technical grounds where it has failed to respond within the statutory 20 days. This is twice as high as Edinburgh Council, the second worst offender.

Holyrood said that it is dealing with a growing number of ­requests, but Ms Agnew confirmed yesterday that her office has contacted ministers, along with ­Edinburgh Council, to offer “support or advice” in tackling the problem.

“It’s now for them to look at their own performance to see whether what our appeal

statistics show is across all departments or a single department of a particular type of request.”

If there is no improvement, the commissioner has the power to instigate a “root and branch” review of how requests are handled with a “management plan” then put in place to secure improvements.

The information commissioner only deals with appeals by disgruntled members of the public, unhappy with decisions taken by individual authorities.

However, there is no clear picture of the overall total of requests being made each year in Scotland.

Ms Agnew is now hoping to rectify this with the creation of a new national database of FoI statistics which will be available on the information commissioner’s website and she has seen 90 per cent of public authorities respond to this.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said that in 2012 it received a record 1,900 FoI requests and is on course to ­receive even more in 2013.

“In 2012 we responded to 1,471 requests on time – the highest on record.

“With high volumes of ­requests, we are not complacent and look to continuously improve our performance,” a spokeswoman said.

“Our commitment to proactive publication and sharing of information with the public is enshrined in legislation.”