Secrecy in Scottish Government deepening under Freedom of Information, warns watchdog

Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew hit out at the erosion of citizens' rights. Picture: Julie Bul
Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew hit out at the erosion of citizens' rights. Picture: Julie Bul
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THE Scottish Government has presided over an “unacceptable” erosion of the public’s right to information, with complaints about secrecy among SNP ministers almost trebling, the official watchdog has said.

Scots now have fewer rights to know about the way public bodies operate than they did when the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act was passed ten years ago, the report added.

The warning comes as Alex Salmond undertakes a court battle against a ruling by Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew to reveal whether his government has received legal advice about the status of an independent Scotland’s EU membership.

Ms Agnew hit out at the growing number of quangos and PFI (public finance initiatives) that are funded through public cash, but exempt from FoI, as she launched her annual report yesterday. It prompted opposition claims that the SNP is treating Freedom of Information with “utter contempt”.

Ms Agnew said: “An ever-growing concern is the loss of rights occurring through the delivery of public services by arm’s-length organisations and third parties.

“FoI was introduced for a reason: to ensure that the delivery of public services and the spending of public money is transparent, open and accountable.

“It is simply not acceptable that citizens’ rights continue to be eroded through complex changes in the delivery of services. This must be looked at as an immediate priority.”

Appeals against FoI decisions by public bodies have risen 24 per cent in the past year to 524. The number of appeals against Scottish ministers jumped 40 to 110 in 2011-12. Most of these were settled without investigation.

In those cases where Ms Angew was forced to issue a ruling, 23 cases went against the Scottish Government. A further six were partially upheld, while 
15 went in favour of ministers.

The government is being urged to use its powers to “designate” more bodies as being covered by FoI to close the growing loophole.

“The real effect of not designating is that we are in a worse position, in relation to rights to information, than we were when the act was first passed” Ms Agnew added.

“I honestly don’t know why ministers haven’t used the powers they have, because enough people have raised this.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said a new Freedom of Information Bill is going through Holyrood, which will make information available

She added that ministers might then look at extending coverage to additional bodies.

“After we have completed parliamentary scrutiny of the current bill, we want to consider the issue of extension of coverage and have an open discussion to inform any future decisions,” she said.

But Labour MSP Paul Martin said the SNP dovernment had an “obsession with secrecy”.

He added: “The Freedom of Information Act is a pillar of our democracy and the SNP is treating it with utter contempt.”

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the government should be “embarrassed” about the jump in appeals against ministers.

“The fog of secrecy enveloping the SNP government grows thicker by the day,” he said.

The report shows 77 per cent of the 524 appeals were made by members of the public, while the media accounted for 12 per cent of the appeals.