Thursday, 10 March 2011

FOI retreat could cause problems for anti-cuts campaigners

The publication of the penultimate Annual Report by the Scottish Information Commissioner recently, has drawn attention (again) to the step backward taken by the Scottish Government in refusing to extend coverage of the Act to private contractors, arms-length Trusts, the GHA and other bodies which increasingly deliver our public services. As Kevin Dunion says, “The right to know is being eroded as public services are delivered by arms length bodies and, instead of leading the way on FOI, we are in danger of falling behind.
Despite the Government’s much vaunted claims of transparency and their initial enthusiasm for extension they appear to have retreated at the ‘first whiff of grapeshot’ from the private sector. It seems that, as it has already done on PFI, this government has proved itself to be long on rhetoric, but short on substance.
It is also an example of the Scottish Government’s deferrals to big business. Despite being an avowedly ‘centre-left’ party, making positive claims over a period of some years about their desire to increase the coverage of the Scottish FOI Act and responding positively to the clear advice from the Scottish Information Commissioner that this is needed, they have withdrawn their proposals (limited as they were) at the first indication that the private contractors would oppose them! Did they ever think they wouldn’t?
In addition they have dropped the proposals - also advocated by Mr Dunion - to extend the  Act to cover the murky half-world of trusts and LLPs. As local councils in particular, look enviously at the trail-blazing by Glasgow City in hiving off its public services to arms-length bodies of different formats. Kevin has highlighted the increasing erosion of the right for us all to find out how our money is being spent by such bodies. But apparently this too, would be too much trouble.
And it is especially concerning as public bodies are increasingly squeezed financially. the upcoming period of cuts and increased outsourcing will inevitably lead to increased demands for information about such decisions. It is therefore simply wrong to allow increasing numbers of services to slip out of the FOI net, and it is also worrying (if understandable) that 41% of FOI officers surveyed identified increasing demands and decreasing resources as “the biggest FOI challenge they faced." In the face of the most severe attack on public services in living memory, it would be invidious if campaigners found problems in obtaining the information they needed.
Unfortunately, for the Scottish Government, at UK level the ConDem coalition is ploughing on strongly to increase coverage to a number of public and semi-public bodies - albeit they seem to stop short of private contractors or even Network Rail! It is deeply ironic that it is an SNP government that is presiding over a reduction in the standard of FOI coverage in Scotland below that of the rest of the country, after over five years of its pre-eminence on the UK stage!
A final warning is also appropriate. This will be Kevin Dunion’s final year as the Scottish Information Commissioner. I think that all involved in the FOI scene in Scotland recognise that the standing of the Act and the success of the legislation has significantly been down to the principles and activity of him and his office. It will be necessary to have someone with an equivalent commitment to the principles of FOI to follow him.
While I am about it, an attempt to assist in the use of FOI legislation is planned by the Campaign for Freedom of Information here in Scotland. They are running a one day course for requesters in Glasgow on the 4 June. More information and forms will shortly be available from the website

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