POLL: Government changes to FOI timescales 'unnecessary measure'

The Scottish Government’s decision to extend the time it has to answer freedom of information requests during the coronavirus pandemic is an ‘unnecessary measure’ which undermines transparency, a new poll has found.

Holyrood has been criticised for passing emergency legislation which extends the FOI response time.
Holyrood has been criticised for passing emergency legislation which extends the FOI response time.

The Survation poll for the Open Knowledge Foundation, has found that people across the UK want openness from governments as they tackle Covid-19 and want evidence and data to be available for checking.

The survey also found that people are more likely to listen to expert advice from scientists and researchers, and 52 per cent believe that “restricting the public’s right to infomation is an unnecessary measure” when asked about new timescales set by the Scottish Government for replying to FOI requests. Only 29 per cent believe restricting the public’s right to information is a necessary emergency measure.

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Governments across the world are passing new emergency laws to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and in Scotland the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill has extended the response deadline to Freedom of Information requests from 20 to 60 days with a potential further extension of 40 days.

If a request is refused, an internal review of the decision can be requested, but the new timeframe means requests for information including statistics, minutes of meetings and email correspondence could take ten months before receiving an answer.

The UK government has not changed its FOI legislation, and the controversial plans were only narrowly passed in Holyrood by MSPs despite a series of attempts by opposition politicians to block them.

The Scottish Government has argued the changes were necessary to relieve pressure on public bodies during the crisis.

Catherine Stihler, chief executive of the Open Knowledge Foundation, said: “At the heart of the response to the pandemic is data, which tells us what is happening in our communities.

“Ensuring that data is open is the first stage in the battle against the coronavirus. This poll shows that people in the UK want Covid-19 data to be openly available for checking, and that research and data should be made open for anyone to use freely. This is important as removing barriers to the use of intellectual property will ultimately help lead to a vaccine.

“The poll shows that measures to restrict the public’s right to information must be avoided, as transparency is more important than ever. People still trust the government to take the right decisions, but this will be eroded if information is withheld.”

The poll of 1006 people, conducted at the end of April also found that 63 per cent believe a government data strategy would have helped in the fight against coronavirus, 97 per cent believe it is important that Covid-19 data is openly available for people to check, 67 per cent believe all coronavirus related research and data should be made open for anyone to use freely and 64 per cent are now more likely to listen expert advice from qualified scientists and researchers.

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She added: “One particularly encouraging finding is that people are now more likely to listen to expert advice. I am hopeful that the acceptance of basic facts will return after this pandemic and there will be a renewed focus on building a fair, free and open future.”

The findings come as the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) released a number of statements and accompanying evidence for measures like the lockdown, and issues such as herd immunity, for the first time, after calls for greater transparency.

The calls were made after it was revealed that the Prime Minister’s top aide, Dominic Cummings, had been attending SAGE meetings.

Ministers have said they are following ‘the best science’, but concerns have been raised about data secrecy with the UK government accused of acting too slowly, lagging behind on testing, and having insufficient supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

The UK government has been developing a National Data Strategy with rules and guidelines on how to share data between organisations like the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS. The strategy has not yet been published.

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