ScotRail criticised for plans to 'vet' requests for information from media and high-profile individuals

ScotRail has been accused of seeking to “vet” Freedom of Information requests if they have come from members of the media or from high-profile individuals.

Official guidance from Scotland’s national train operator, obtained by The Scotsman, details how Freedom of Information requests should be handled by staff.

However, it appears to breach the principle of requests being treated “applicant blind”, which states organisations should not change their approach to FOI requests based on the identity of the person requesting the information.

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Critics said the guidance was the latest example of SNP ministers extending “their culture of secrecy and spin”.

The Scottish Government has separately recently faced intense scrutiny around accusations of secrecy in relation to the contract award of two ferries to Ferguson Marine in 2015.

The guidance, produced as part of a flowchart detailing the FOI process, states “all high-profile requests” require the sign off of the communications director, head of franchise and the functional director

It reads: “High-profile FIO request is defined as ‘requests from the media or prominent public figures’; which refer to contentious matters/subjects in the news; or which concern large sums of money or questions about ScotRail’s conduct/integrity are all potentially high profile."

ScotRail has been criticised for its approach to freedom of information.

It also states when a request is deemed high profile, the Freedom of Information officer in charge of the response should issue a draft version for approval, with the communications director and functional director not involved in the process at that stage.

The guidance was issued after the company was brought into public ownership on April 1, which also saw it become subject to Freedom of Information legislation, which covers all public bodies.

It also comes five years into an ongoing intervention into the Scottish Government by the Scottish Information Commissioner for creating a “two-track” FOI system in which journalists faced longer response times than members of the public.

However, ScotRail defended its policy, stating the process allowed senor members of the leadership team sight of what was being released to the public if it was high profile.

The train operator also said the policy did not change the process of handling FOI requests and claimed the new publicly-owned company based its guidance on what the Scottish Information Commissioner recommends.

Graham Simpson, the Scottish Conservative’s transport spokesperson, said it “beggars belief” ScotRail had issued such guidance.

He said: “SNP ministers are already ensuring ScotRail becomes part of their culture of secrecy and spin by the looks of it.

“With ScotRail now under public ownership, it beggars belief that top bosses are seeking to vet routine Freedom of Information requests depending on who they are from.

“There is simply no justification for this decision. Rail passengers who are already having to put up with fewer services deserve to know decisions made by senior officials and will be deeply concerned by this ruling.”

David Ross, ScotRail communications director, said: “All Freedom of Information requests are handled in accordance with criteria established under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.”

The Scottish Government declined to comment.

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