Leader: ‘Right to know’ test for SNP

INFORMATION is power. This axiom was at the heart of the freedom of information (FoI) revolution that followed the election of a Labour government in 1997, which resulted in legislation giving the public a right of access to most official records.

But by then the cat was well and truly out of the bag.

Here in Scotland, on the arrival of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, our politicians went further than Westminster in opening up officialdom to public scrutiny – here the restrictions on what people could and could not see were less stringent than south of the Border. Holyrood’s legislation on the subject reflected the commendable desire that the new Scottish body politic would be more transparent and accountable than Westminster. The question now is whether that transparency and accountability is being jeopardised.

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Kevin Dunion fears that is indeed the case. As Scotland’s Information Commissioner, he is the man who ensures public bodies are held to the letter of the law and do not obstruct legitimate requests for information. And he says the growing trend in Scotland for political responsibilities being transferred into trusts and private bodies – which are outwith the scope of FoI legislation – means Scots are being deprived of access to information on health, education and council services. Worryingly, Dunion believes Scotland is even falling behind England and Wales, with a more secretive and restrictive attitude to open information. This is more than just an arcane issue for political anoraks. It was FoI scrutiny that exposed the scandal of infection rates at Vale of Leven hospital, for example. The Scottish Government is wrong to resist changes to FoI legislation to take account of these new trends. They may think it pragmatic but it sends the wrong signal. Another useful axiom is that greater scrutiny makes for better government, and better quality public services.

Also of concern is the future of the post of Information Commissioner itself. Dunion is now in the final weeks of his fixed-term contact. He has acquitted himself well, bringing a unique skill-set to the job, given his background as an environmental campaigner and astute lobbyist. He has not been afraid to challenge those in power – sometimes at the highest level – to ensure equitable access to public information. It is, therefore, important that his replacement has similar energy and mettle. Technically, the commissioner is appointed by the Scottish Parliament, a measure designed to ensure the post is, as far as possible, not in the gift of one political party. Since last May, however, one party enjoys a majority at Holyrood and has untrammelled power. In the selection of parliamentary committee conveners and presiding officer it has shown itself willing to use that power. When picking a new Information Commissioner – and indeed the other regulators and ombudsmen whose jobs are also in the parliament’s gift – the onus on the SNP is now to choose people who will be doughty fighters for the rights their posts are intended to protect. Any attempt to impose meek placemen would a naked attempt to subvert the few checks and balances that remain on executive power. We trust the First Minister has more honour – and more political sense – than to allow that to happen.