The legislation for making Freedom of Information (FoI) requests in Scotland is being “abused by a handful of people” at significant cost to the taxpayer, it has been claimed.
In a Holyrood committee meeting today, SNP MSP Alex Neil said the system was not being used in the manner in which it was intended when it was introduced in 2002.
He said that according to information given to him by the Scottish Government, less than 50 per cent of FoI requests made in 2017/18 came from individual members of the public.
He also said it was estimated five individuals account for 20 per cent of all requests made over that period, with one individual behind 12 per cent of requests at a cost of £100,000.
The Scottish Government said 3,050 FoI requests were made in 2017 and at least 3,800 were made last year.
Mr Neil said: “In a recent Holyrood magazine conference, the minister for parliamentary business gave a couple of examples. Two of the questions were ‘how many copies of Ruth Davidson’s autobiography have been purchased by the Scottish Government?’ and ‘how much has been spent by the Scottish Government over the previous three years on crayons?’.
“That was not the purpose of the FoI legislation. I’m probably the only member who was here when the legislation went through.
“This is a total abuse of the legislation. In September, I’m told, one individual sent 84 requests in less than an hour – literally, one every 40 seconds. That’s not the purpose, people are abusing this.
“Is it not time we crack down on the abuse and freed up more resource for the genuine inquirers?”
It came as Daren Fitzhenry, the Scottish Information Commissioner, was giving evidence to the Public Audit Committee as part of its scrutiny of the 2002 legislation.
Mr Fitzhenry published a report on FoIs in June last year that indicated inconsistencies in the handling of FoI requests.
The report found requests from journalists, together with MSPs and political researchers, were “expressly made subject to a different process for clearance” than those made by others.
The Scottish Government said at the time that it accepted in full the watchdog’s seven recommendations, including ending its practice of treating requests differently “solely because of who or what they are”.
Mr Fitzhenry, responding to Mr Neil’s call to crack down on suspected abuses of the system, said: “I think there’s a fundamental problem with how you would achieve that beyond the existing provisions.
“That problem is that you’d be seeking to come to a view as to whether somebody’s request was valid or not, whether it was a worthwhile request or not.
“What’s worthwhile is very much a subjective view which differs from person to person.
“In relation to the extremes, I do question sometimes why authorities don’t seek to rely on the existing provisions and indeed at the Holyrood conference when some of the examples were provided, one of the journalists who was speaking also said that if he’d put in a request in that way, he would have expected a vexatious response to come in.
“I know from my interviews with a number of Scottish Government individuals as part of my intervention there was a reluctance to use the vexatious provisions.
“That’s not something I can control, I can’t make them use the vexatious provisions, all I can say is they are there, they’re available.
“Ultimately, if there are these provisions which would allow a request to be refused because it’s vexatious, it’s for the authorities to use it and if an appeal is made, I’ll then consider as to whether the authority has correctly applied those provisions.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government sets great store by the Freedom of Information Act. While the decision to reject requests as vexatious is one we do not take lightly, and has very rarely been exercised, it is an option open to us under the law.
“Our significant improvement in performance has been recognised by the Scottish Information Commissioner, in the face of an unprecedented increase in information requests - a large proportion of which are from a small number of individuals.”