Thursday, 2 February 2012

Campaign sounds warning for new Information Commissioner

The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland has welcomed the Scottish Parliament’s recommendation for the new Scottish Information Commissioner, but have warned that the pressure for extending and promoting the legislation must be kept up, and stepped up.

The Parliament yesterday approved the recommendation of its Corporate Body to appoint Rosemary Agnew as the new Scottish Information Commissioner, succeeding Kevin Dunion, who retires from office later this month. 
Carole Ewart, co-convener of the Campaign, said: “We congratulate Ms Agnew on her appointment, and look forward to continuing working with the Commissioner's office to develop and promote this important legislation. The Scottish Information Commissioner is a key figure in the success of FOI and, as FOI is at a pivotal stage in Scotland, we would like to see her continuing the positive developments her predecessor has established."
The campaign is concerned that the pressure to extend the FOI laws in Scotland to cover all providers of public services isn’t dissipated by the change of Commissioner. Currently, if public authorities outsource services to charitable trusts, housing associations, joint public/private partnerships or privatise service delivery, people’s rights to information can be lost as these types of bodies are not covered by the legislation.
Extension of the coverage can be done by Scottish Ministers under existing law, but a minimal proposal to so so before the last election was dropped. The Campaign has been critical of that withdrawal. The existing Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion,  has also indicated that he supported such an extension, as he was concerned that outsourcing public services was leading to the loss of people’s information rights, particularly important during a period of cutbacks and austerity. 
Kevin Dunion has certainly made his mark as the first Commissioner, and has established FOI as a much-used right. He has also made it his business to work closely with all sectors of the sector - providers and users - a development far too little undertaken by regulators and agencies. That this is appreciated by both sides, was seen at his final FOI conference in December where tributes were led by Sandy Longmuir of the Scottish Rural Schools Network, and Ken Meechan of Glasgow City Council! 
It is particularly galling in this important area, that the Scottish Government, with its commitment to transparency, has put extension on the backburner - ostensibly because the organisations who would be covered don’t like the idea. Down south, even the Tory-led coalition is pressing ahead with some extensions (to such bodies as the Local Government Association, and the Association of Chief Police Officers) while here their equivalents can still refuse requests under the legislation. It would be a major impediment if Scotland had freedom of information legislation that doesn't allow public access to information held by all providers of public services.

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