DCSIMG

Welcome to secret Scotland

Key quote:

"I want to know whether there will be a new FoI culture, rather than just waiting to be asked about things and, as far as I can see, we are still waiting for that to happen." - Kevin Dunion, Information Commissioner

Story in full SCOTLAND'S public life remains shrouded in secrecy despite the Executive's flagship Freedom of Information Act, campaigners and experts warned last night.

They spoke out as it emerged that more than 500 people had been forced to appeal to the information watchdog last year after having their requests for information turned down by public authorities north of the Border.

That is twice as many as in England, per head of population, a figure which campaigners said suggested Scotland's public bodies were not as ready as they should be to divulge information.

Most of the appeals to Scotland's Information Commissioner were submitted after public bodies refused to hand over information, claiming they had a right to keep it secret. Yet, when the commissioner examined the details, he ruled in favour of the applicant (in whole or in part) in almost two-thirds of the cases.

Often, requests to public bodies seem quite innocuous, but they are not always treated that way by the authorities. Grampian Police refused to say how much taxpayers' money it had spent on new Range Rovers for the chief constable and deputy chief constable - until forced to do so by the commissioner.

The Fisheries Research Service declined to say which fish farm had been responsible for an escape of salmon; Fife Council refused to reveal why the high street in Dysart had not been traffic-calmed and Edinburgh University failed to provide information on fire safety.

All the figures and the details of the appeals were contained in the annual report of Kevin Dunion, the Information Commissioner, published last night. Mr Dunion said yesterday that some progress had been made, but he was clear that there was still considerable work to be done.

He said that while most public bodies were now operating within the letter of the law and were complying with many Freedom of Information requests, they had not changed their cultures to embrace the spirit of the law.

Christine Grahame, an SNP MSP, who has been frustrated on many occasions in her attempts to extract information from the Executive, said: "The culture of secrecy has not gone away, it has got worse.

"Structures are now in place and practices are now in place to make sure that, even if you are successful, the information you want will not be there; they will have discussed it in places where it is not recorded or minuted and the worst offenders are the Scottish Executive."

Bill Welsh, a campaigner on autism, said: "Every government department now has an information officer - maybe they should change the terminology to a 'you are not getting the information officer'. They have been erecting the barricades since the Freedom of Information Act and it's still very difficult to get information from government departments."

Lindsay Scott, of Help the Aged, said: "In many public services, there is an 'us and them attitude' and they forget they are there to serve the public.

"It is not made easy to get information and there are plans afoot to make it more difficult. That has to be resisted because it is a step forward to able to get information we have always been told is none of our business."

Mr Dunion said that compliance with the act was now good, but he queried whether the culture within government had changed sufficiently.

He said: "Beyond compliance with the law, are we going to do things differently? Are we going to make decisions differently? Are we going to minute meetings differently?

"I want to know whether there will be a new FoI culture, rather than just waiting to be asked about things and, as far as I can see, we are still waiting for that to happen."

Mr Dunion said he was still coming up against public authorities which refused to divulge information because, they claimed, if they did, it would inhibit the actions of future civil servants.

The commissioner said he rejected this excuse every time but said it was symptomatic of a reluctance to change within the civil service.

He said that all public authorities should change their way of working, collating all information and minuting all meetings with an eye to the Freedom of Information Act.

During 2006, 511 people appealed to Mr Dunion in a bid to get information from public authorities.

The commissioner ruled on 252 cases and intervened to force bodies to reveal information in 144.

In 22 per cent of all cases Mr Dunion found entirely in the applicant's favour and in 35 per cent of cases he ruled partially in their favour.

Margaret Curran, the minister for parliamentary business, said that much more information was available now than had been in the past.

She said: "Release of information does ultimately require, in some instances, a change to a culture of openness. But that does not necessarily mean that the starting point was a culture of secrecy.

"FoI is delivering genuine benefits to the people of Scotland, providing greater access than ever before." - details about their local hospital, for example."

She added: "Since the introduction of the act, the Executive has routinely published more information than was previously available, and we are continuing work to build upon the success to date. In such a short space of time, FoI has broken down many barriers."

There is strong evidence to suggest the public is much more attuned to the scope of the new laws, with 65 per cent of all applications for appeals last year made by members of the public - up from 55 per cent the year before.

Questions, questions ... but not too many answers

HERE are examples of Freedom of Information requests that were denied. They include requests lodged by the public and The Scotsman. Some of the rulings were later overturned.

• Q) "How much has it cost Grampian Police for new Range Rovers for the chief constable and deputy chief constable's use?"

A) "We can't tell you," said the police.

The information commissioner had to order the force to publish details.

• Q) "How many Labour Party and personal events have been held at Bute House, the First Minister's official residence?"

A) "That information is not held by the Executive," said Executive officials.

• Q) "What tenders did Dundee City Council receive to re-roof former council properties?"

A) "We won't tell you - it would compromise trade secrets," said the council.

This decision was overturned on appeal.

• Q) "Which fish farm accidentally released salmon on Orkney last year?"

A) "We won't tell you," said the Fisheries Research Service.

It was eventually forced to do so by the commissioner.

• Q) "Why was Dysart High Street excluded from local traffic-calming measures?"

A) Fife Council refused to give this information.

The applicant appealed, successfully.

• Q) "What was in the early drafts of the Executive's sexual health strategy?"

A) "We do not have to publish information on the formulation of government policy," said the Executive.

• Q) "What was in an Executive-commissioned report on financial independence for Scotland?"

A) This document has still not been released, 11 months after the request, and is not likely to be published before the election.

• Q) The Scotsman asked how many complaints of bullying or harassment NHS Borders had received from employees after an incident involving another member of staff, in the period 1999-2006.

A) "There is no central record of incidents and it would be too expensive to go through staff records," said NHS Borders.

• Q) The Scotsman asked for details about how many cases of Clostridium difficile had been diagnosed in NHS Highland hospitals between 2000 and 2006.

A) "While the lab at Raigmore Hospital has the number of C. difficile toxin-positive stool specimens, this is not equivalent to the number of patients diagnosed," came the reply.

• Q) The Scotsman asked what was in reports submitted by casualty notification officers in the military (the officers nominated to tell a family a loved one has been killed).

A) The Ministry of Defence issued flat refusals.

• Q) "How many dawn raids have been carried out in Scotland in the past five years?"

A) "The information is not available," claimed the Home Office.

• Q) Every local authority in Scotland was asked how much it spent on meals for the elderly in residential homes.

A) Stirling, the Shetland Isles, Perth and Kinross, North Ayrshire, Falkirk, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire were unable to give figures, although every other council was able to provide an answer.

• Q) Hunter Watson, a campaigner on the rights of the elderly, asked the Scottish Executive to reveal details of the legal advice it had received on legislating to prevent surreptitious medication.

A) The Executive has so far refused to release the advice, which could shed light on the debate over whether hiding drugs in the food of elderly residents with dementia is against human-rights laws.

• Q) Scotland's police forces were asked by The Scotsman how many serving officers had criminal records.

A) One force, Fife Constabulary refused to provide the information, claiming that it would be "too expensive" for staff to extract the data from its files.

• Q) The Scotsman asked local authorities how many children were not given a free nursery place.

A) Some councils simply failed to provide the information. Others suggested there was no waiting list, despite parents being refused a place.

• Q) East Lothian Council was asked by The Scotsman how many women were on the homelessness register.

A) "This information will take too long to find," came the reply.

• Q) Michael Foote asked Aberdeenshire Council for a copy of the agreement with Tesco over the sale of land and property at Canal Park, Banff.

A) The council refused and said it was confidential. The information commissioner agreed.

• The following exchange - between Scotsman reporter Eben Harrell and a police control room - is not an FOI request as such, but demonstrates the difficulties in gleaning even basic details.

EH: "We've heard there has been an arrest in Edinburgh."

Police: "We can only confirm there has been an incident."

EH: "Can you tell me if there has been an arrest?"

P: "We can only confirm there has been an incident."

EH: "Was it a man or a woman that was arrested?"

P: "We can only confirm there has been an incident."

EH: "How many police officers were involved?"

P: "We can only confirm there has been an incident."

EH: "Were there any armed units involved?"

P: "We can only confirm there has been an incident."

Etc, etc.

• Q) Stephen Harte wanted information on fire safety from Edinburgh University.

A) The university failed to respond.

Eventually, when prompted by an appeal to the information commissioner, it provided the information requested.

• Q) Sheila Murphy asked West Lothian Council how much Jackie Bird, the BBC presenter, was paid to host a dinner in 2006.

A) The council refused to provide the information but was overruled.

• Q) Sir Tom Farmer asked Edinburgh City Council for information on the sale of land known as the Lochend Butterfly.

A) The council refused, claiming it would prejudice its commercial interests and would cost more than 600 to get the information.

The commissioner ruled against Sir Tom and in favour of the council.

LOUISE GRAY AND HAMISH MACDONELL

Scots vow no new charges for official information

RESTRICTIONS on the Freedom of Information regime planned for England will not be applied in Scotland, ministers have promised.

Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, wants a new charging regime for England, which would include the time spent by ministers and officials deciding whether to release the information requested - as well as the cost of collating the information itself.

This could effectively give every official the go-ahead to play for time and refuse any request that might prove embarrassing.

But Executive sources made clear last night that, while there might be some "tinkering around the edges" of the FoI regime in Scotland, ministers would not introduce new charges or make it more difficult for people to access information.

The Freedom of Information regime is already more generous to applicants in Scotland than to ones in England.

 
 
 

Back to the top of the page