Scottish Government claim it has 'most open and transparent' Freedom of Information regime after UK Government accused of running 'Orwellian' unit

Policies including delaying Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from journalists and getting clearance on disclosures from government special advisers no longer takes place in Scotland, the Scottish Government has claimed.

The Scottish Government has claimed it has the most "open and transparent" freedom of information system in the UK

The declaration came after OpenDemocracy reported the UK Government run an ‘Orwellian’ unit in the Cabinet Office where journalists are regularly blacklisted or have their requests for information “stonewalled” and unanswered.

The ‘Clearing House’ unit instructs different UK Government departments on how to respond to Freedom of Information requests and shares personal information about journalists.

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This could be breaking the law due to the principle that Freedom of Information requests should be “applicant blind” – meaning whoever makes the request should not matter.

The UK Government insisted the ‘Clearing House’ is necessary to deal with more complex requests and increasing transparency.

The Scottish Government was heavily criticised in 2018 for similar practice in a report by the Information Commissioner.

Darren Fitzhenry, the commissioner at the time, found “unjustifiable, significant delays” in some cases and that journalists and political researchers were subject to an “additional layer of clearance” that he recommended should end.

The same report criticised the Scottish Government’s practice of referring FOI requests for clearance by ministers simply because they came from journalists, MSPs or researchers.

At the time, the Scottish Government said it was “happy to accept” Mr Fitzhenry’s recommendations, which included improvements to clearance procedures, quality assurance, training, case handling, monitoring and review procedures.

When asked whether any of the practices alleged to take place within the UK Government still take place in Scotland, a Scottish Government spokesperson said any such practice had stopped.

The spokesperson said: “Scotland has the most open and transparent Freedom of Information regime in the UK.

“We recognise the importance of upholding information rights and have made changes to our processes as part of an action plan that has supported improvements to our FOI performance over the last three years.

“All requests are now handled in accordance with our criteria for decision-making, which were agreed with the Scottish Information Commissioner. Journalists’ requests are not treated differently to those of other requesters.

“All FOI requests are processed as promptly as possible and in accordance with the legislation, which provides no mechanism to blacklist individuals or block sensitive information.”

However, the Scottish Government have been criticised this year by MSPs for failing to respond to some requests for information and a lack of transparency at the heart of government.

It has also been accused of deliberate secrecy and cover-ups due to a refusal to release information.

This has included the key legal advice related to the judicial review brought by former first minister Alex Salmond, which the Scottish Government has refused to release despite MSPs passing a motion demanding it does so.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney was also accused of a cover-up by Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrat MSPs over the failure to take minutes or notes from meetings with the SQA around the 2020 exam results.

As recently as last week, the Scottish Government refused to release forecasting analysis around potential deaths and cases from a potential second wave of Covid-19.

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