Erosion of access to freedom of information ‘unacceptable’, says FoI chief

THE erosion of rights to freedom of information is not acceptable and must be investigated immediately, according to the information commissioner.

• Information commissioner Rosemary Agnew raises concerns about receding FoI rights caused by more third party organisations delivering public services

• Non-government organisations are currently exempt from complying with freedom of information requests

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• SNP have come under fire for handling of FoI requests, in particular with relation to requests regarding Scottish independence

Rosemary Agnew underlined concerns about the use of “arms length” organisations providing public services on the day her first annual report was published.

Appeals have risen 24 per cent in the past year, with 77 per cent made by members of the public, the report reveals.

Ms Agnew said: “The current economic situation is leading to an increase in freedom of information (FOI) requests to authorities, as people naturally want to understand the reasons behind decisions that affect them. At the same time authorities are finding themselves with fewer resources to respond.

“My priority as commissioner is to help the public make better-targeted, more effective requests while also developing resources to support public authorities in responding to those requests faster and more efficiently.

“However, an ever-growing concern is the loss of rights occurring through the delivery of public services by arms-length organisations and third parties.

“FOI was introduced for a reason: to ensure that the delivery of public services and the spending of public money is transparent, open and accountable. It is simply not acceptable that citizens’ rights continue to be eroded through complex changes in the delivery of services.

“This must be looked at as an immediate priority.”

The media accounted for 12 per cent of the appeals, 6 per cent were from commercial organisations and 2 per cent from the voluntary sector.

At 45 per cent, most appeals to the commissioner related to information held by local government, while there was a 13 per cent increase in appeals relating to Scottish ministers and the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Government is facing criticism for its handling of FOI legislation, particularly in response to calls for information about an independent Scotland’s place in the European Union.

First Minister Alex Salmond argues that the ministerial code prevents him from disclosing what legal advice he has on the issue, or even whether advice exists.

The Government appealed against an official ruling compelling it to reveal whether it has taken legal advice.