'Half a million for more secrecy' - Tories criticise rising Scottish Government FOI spending

Ministers must justify a significant rise in the amount of money spent on Freedom of Information staff at the Scottish Government with improved performance, the Conservatives have demanded.

It comes as it was revealed – through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request – the salary bill for the Government’s FOI Unit has more than doubled in the past five years.

In 2016, the year before the Scottish Information Commissioner issued a blistering attack on the Government’s approach to FOI, spending was £172,005, which has now risen to £539,020.

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Craig Hoy, the Scottish Conservative’s party chairman, said the costs had “ballooned”, but with “nothing to show for it”.

He said: “If these FOI officers were working to increase the transparency of the SNP Government, then their salaries might be justified. However, it seems that the only result of this half-a-million-pound spend is more secrecy.

“From Ferguson Marine to Lochaber Smelter, a series of scandals has shown that the SNP Government has a long way to go to reach the standards of transparency the Scottish public has a right to expect.

“And according to the Information Commissioner’s most recent report, far too many valid FOI requests are being held up by Government ministers and special advisers with political motives.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has faced criticism around her government's approach to freedom of information.

“If these FOI officers are not helping to increase openness and scrutiny within the SNP Government, then ministers must urgently explain the reason behind their growing numbers and justify this vast taxpayer bill with some real progress.”

It comes after Scottish Labour also highlighted concerns with the Government’s ability to respond to FOI requests within the 20-day statutory deadline.

The party said figures show this legal rule was broken 666 times, with one in seven responses being returned late.

In May, the Scottish Information Commissioner, Daren Fitzhenry, criticised the Government for overseeing “significant and systemic” failures.

His report warned special advisers to ministers were often intervening in cases outside of the formal processes, with officials failing to make the required record of any advice from these political advisers.

Mr Fitzhenry also warned organisational compliance and issues with monitoring and reporting were “clearly wider concerns” needing to be “urgently addressed”.

The Government has faced criticism for several high-profile failures of transparency, including on Covid-19 care home deaths, the £586 million Lochaber guarantee, and modelling of deaths during the pandemic.

A spokesperson defended the Government’s record, saying Scotland had the “most open and far-reaching” transparency rules in the UK.

The spokesperson said: “Over the past two years response rates for requests issued within 20 working days have improved to around the average for Scottish public bodies, at 86 per cent.

"We have, at the same time, responded to a steep increase in the volume of FOI requests, handling a record 4,200 requests last year – 40 per cent more in 2021 than in 2019, the vast majority on time.

“In his recent progress report, the Scottish Information Commissioner praised the Scottish Government’s FOI unit, saying it plays a valuable role in the FOI and EIR request-handling process.

"We remain committed to further improvement, including achieving the target of answering 95 per cent of requests on time.”

The first episode of the brand new limited series podcast, How to be an independent country: Scotland’s Choices, is out now.

It is available wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.


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