Public’s right to know thwarted by Freedom of Information bungles sector staff in dark on taking freedom-of-information requests

PUBLIC bodies in Scotland still lack expertise when dealing with freedom-of-information requests and must do better to save the taxpayer money.

PUBLIC bodies in Scotland still lack expertise when dealing with freedom-of-information requests and must do better to save the taxpayer money.

New Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew said some authorities see FoI requests as an “encumbrance” and handle them poorly – making too many errors in the process. If they dealt with requests more quickly and effectively, she said, they could save themselves money in the long term.

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“Technical decisions [that come to the Information Commissioner] are about errors, and about not doing things in appropriate time scales,” said Ms Agnew, who replaced Kevin Dunion last month. “Had public authorities done it right in the first place, those applications would never have come to us.

“They perhaps send a message that these authorities are not as expert at the coalface as they ought to be and if they became more expert, they might actually save themselves money – rather than [a request] going all the way through the system to us.”

She added: “Like every other public body, there is a real challenge to maintain service given the constraints on budgets. [My] organisation does not have a particularly large budget for the scope and the amount of work that we get through.

“We are in the same position as every other public body and part of the same challenge: to deliver statutory requirements within reduced resources. That will naturally lead us to look again at efficiencies and internal performance.

“If we [all public bodies] can do more on getting it right first time, we may be able to provide greater value to those authorities who themselves are dealing with constrained resources.”

Ms Agnew said her office would be looking at how to provide more training, information and guidance for public bodies to help them make the right decisions first time when faced with FoI requests.

The increase in up-front advice would be the big difference from the regime of Kevin Dunion, her predecessor as Information Commissioner, added Ms Agnew, who was previously chief executive of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission.

“By enabling authorities to deal with things more effectively, we [might] not get as many technical applications because they were done right first time,” she said.

“Having recently come from an organisation that was subject to FOI, one of the challenges I found was affordable training for FOI staff and leaders about why FOI is important [and] for every member of staff to understand FOI requests.

“We are reviewing our communications strategy to see whether we can make more resources for that side of our work.”

Ms Agnew also criticised proposals in the SNP government’s Freedom of Information (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill – published during her first month in office – for suggesting tighter rules on exemption for information about the Royal Family.

She said: “I have some reservations about the absolute exemption of the Royal Family.

“It is a general principle of freedom of information laws around the world that absolute exemptions should be relatively rare.

“The proposed amendment would introduce another absolute exemption into Scotland’s FOI laws – one which is particularly wide in scope, applying as it would to all information relating to communications.”