Freedom of information act ‘past its sell-by date’

Freedom of information laws in Scotland, introduced to make public authorities more accountable for their actions, are “past their sell-by date” according to new university research.

The decade-old act allows members of the public to request official information from public authorities. Picture: Neil Hanna

The decade-old act allows members of the public to request official information from public authorities.

But a study by Strathclyde University has found that new arm’s-length organisations set up by councils to deliver public services keep too many secrets.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

It also criticised the Scottish Government for failing to update the ten-year-old laws frequently enough.

Ministers expanded the FOI laws two years ago to include external arm’s-length organisations (Aleos) – the sports, leisure and cultural trusts created by councils.

But a new investigation has criticised some of the trusts for refusing to provide information or claiming the law does not apply to them.

A study was carried out by Strathclyde University PhD researcher Calum Liddle, who submitted freedom of information requests to each of the trusts.

Five trusts failed to respond to a request within the time limit of 20 working days.

Live Active Leisure in Perth and Kinross took 94 days to respond and Pickaquoy Centre Trust in Orkney took 99 days.

Four trusts had no publication schemes available for the public to view, a breach of FOI legislation. Another claimed it was not subject to FOI laws because it was partly set up by a public body not covered by the rules.

Mr Liddle said: “There is blame to be placed on two groups.

“One is the councils for surrendering public services to arm’s-length organisations but not obliging those companies to have transparency mechanisms in place.

“The second group is the Scottish Government. There have been too few – and far too weak – revisions to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, which is 10 years old.

“These results demonstrate that Scotland’s FOI regime is past its sell-by date. It is in urgent need of revision. We have to hold these arm’s-length companies to account.”

Chris Bartter, spokesman for the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland, added: “The problems and loopholes thrown up by this research identify the reason why we should change our approach to FOI.

“We must ensure all public services are covered, no matter who delivers them – public or private sector, partnerships or voluntary bodies.”

Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew said: “Information about public functions and services, including those delivered by Aleos, should be freely accessible by all if Scotland is to demonstrate its openness and accountability in the way it serves citizens.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “We regularly review the effectiveness of Scotland’s FOI law.”