SNP improvements to Freedom of Information laws must 'have teeth'

Ministers must ensure any expansion of Freedom of Information (FOI) laws “have teeth” and represent “real progress”, a Labour MSP has said

Proposals brought forward by Katy Clark would see private firms, trusts and arms-length bodies become subject to Freedom of Information legislation when they deliver public services.

This would be a significant extension of the existing legislation, and would see care homes and bodies such as the Scottish Convention of Local Authorities and the Scottish Police Federation fall under the legislation.

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Such a move would allow the public access to key financial information and internal correspondence, improving transparency and accountability.

General view of the chamber during the First Minister's Questions session at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh.

Ahead of the Holyrood FOI conference, the Labour MSP demanded any update to legislation must “have teeth” and not represent “more kicking the can down the road”.

She said: “FOI was a significant gain in the early years of devolution. So much of this has been eroded in the past decade, with the rise of unaccountable and distant arms-length bodies' spending public money and making critical decisions with little scrutiny. Never was this more than during the Covid pandemic, with the tragic deaths in care homes, so many of which operate in the private sector and are exempt from FOI.

"Continuing to exempt these opaquely owned firms, often owned abroad in tax havens, in the long term risks a return to 1980s and early 1990s-style secrecy. That’s why any announcements made by the Scottish Government must have teeth. The public expects real progress, not more kicking the can down the road.

"The principle must be that Freedom of Information laws apply to any area that involves the use of taxpayers' money.”

A consultation on Ms Clark’s proposals is open. In January, ministers told MSPs they would set out how they plan to expand FOI legislation following a consultation in 2019. However, despite this, the Scottish Government has said as of Monday it plans to consult the public again rather than move forward.

A Government spokesperson said: “Access to information plays a critical role in ensuring openness and transparency. The Scottish Government is already committed to reviewing the operation of Scotland’s FOI regime, which is why we plan to consult to seek wider views from the public and civil society.

"We welcome the contribution to the discussion that Katy Clark's consultation represents.”

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