Worst performance by Scottish Government on freedom of information requests for three years

Covid-19 led to more delays in responding to freedom of information by the Scottish Government than at any point since 2017, figures show.

The Scottish Government building at Victoria Quay, Leith, Edinburgh. Picture: Scott Louden/JPIMedia
The Scottish Government building at Victoria Quay, Leith, Edinburgh. Picture: Scott Louden/JPIMedia

The Scottish Government took longer than the statutory deadline of 20 days to respond to a freedom of information request 346 times in 2020, up to mid-November, with the total number likely to be higher.

It is the highest number of delayed responses since 2017 when 454 requests were late but is an improvement on the same figure in 2016 when more than 600 requests were responded to late.

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A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We absolutely recognise the importance of upholding information rights, and continue to respond as promptly as possible to requests for information. Our FOI performance has improved greatly over the last three years, replying on time to 95% of requests in 2019-20.

“The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill brought in temporary measures that provided much needed breathing space to allow public authorities to focus on dealing with the pandemic.

“We respect that the current FOISA timescales have been restored and performance has improved significantly in recent months.”

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.

And in November last year, the Scottish Government claimed it had the “most open and transparent freedom of information regime in the UK” in response to concerns around an Orwellian ‘clearing house’ unit in the UK Government.

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However, it has been criticised by MSPs for a lack of transparency.

This has included the key legal advice related to the judicial review brought by former first minister Alex Salmond and John Swinney being accused of a cover-up over the failure to take minutes at meetings with the SQA around the 2020 exam results.

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