COUNCILS will be forced to open up arm’s-length organisations (aleos) to greater public scrutiny, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promised yesterday, as MSPs backed plans to update the public’s right to know how their cash is spent.
Holyrood approved the first changes to Scotland’s freedom of information (FoI) laws in more than ten years, with key changes including a move to publish historical documents faster and make it easier to prosecute.
Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government would now extend FoI to include bodies such as sport and leisure trusts that spend public funds alongside health boards, police authorities and councils already covered.
Many of Scotland’s councils have split off their culture and leisure services and set up companies and arm’s-length organisations (aleos) to run them, such as Glasgow Life and Edinburgh Leisure. Campaigners complain the rise of aleos has led to an erosion of FoI as the public has had no right to know how they spend their money.
However, opposition MSPs attacked Ms Sturgeon’s promised future reform as “timid” after the plan to extend FoI cover was not included in the bill passed by parliament yesterday. The SNP blocked attempts by opposition MSPs to immediately extend the disclosure laws to cover bodies such as housing associations and private firms working on public contracts.
Labour MSP Elaine Murray sought an amendment to force councils to transfer FoI responsibily on setting up an aleo.
Former Labour leader Iain Gray put forward an amendment that, if passed, would have made Glasgow Housing Association subject to FoI.
He insisted that this would “redeem” the legislation by ensuring it extended FoI “into areas where pretty much everyone thinks it should go”.
But the move was rejected by Ms Sturgeon who insisted that the discretion to designate aleos and other bodies such as housing associations should remain with ministers.
No minister has extended FoI rights to any public body since the FoI Act was passed in 2002, but Ms Sturgeon pledged to make the first new designations “as soon as practicably possible”.
She announced that she has started a consultation to bring culture and leisure under FoI.
She said: “This initial order, and I stress the word initial, will at the first instance extend coverage to bodies established by local authorities to deliver recreational, sporting and cultural and social facilities and activities on their behalf.
“We then plan to look towards further extensions of other aleo organisations carrying out other functions.
“I now intend to consult [council umbrella body] Cosla, local authorities and other interested parties on bringing councils’ other aleos which carry out public functions within the scope of FoI.
“I see no reason not to get on with the job of bringing first culture and sporting aleos, and then other aleos subject to consultation.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie complained that the SNP has taken six years to bring the proposals forward. He said: “The Cabinet secretary tempted us earlier on that she was going to make a radical change today, and was going to announce a big expansion of the remit of the FoI regime. But we’ve not got any timing of when she is going to start it.
“This is a timid response to a demand that’s been going on for a long time. ”