|Rosemary Agnew |
- New Scottish Information
Thursday, 31 May 2012
Importing changes from London would be a mistake
A seminar in Dundee yesterday (30/05/12) heard that it might not be such a good idea to import freedom of information (FOI) developments direct from London.
While this included the Scottish Government’s proposed ‘forelock-tugging’ adoption of the UK’s exemption of communications with a ‘quasi-feudal, privileged class, it wasn’t the only threat identified in the contributions to the Centre for Freedom of Information’s seminar. Two speakers from London warned of dangers to FOI being discussed as part of the (Westminster) Justice Committee’s review of the UK FOI Act.
Dr Ben Worthy, of the University College, London said that the review had allowed senior politicians to start speculation that FOI was leading to a ‘chilling effect’ on government decision-making, restricting free discussion of ideas in policy making, and that they were also peddling the idea that the ‘wrong’ people were using the Act. A wholly wrong concept, but one that was now gaining ground.
Ibrahim Hasan, of ‘Act Now Training’ and ‘Save FOI’ campaign agreed, and also warned that the review was being used to lobby for changes to restrict FOI access - he predicted increased fees and more exemptions.
The seminar was also important as the first public outing for the new Scottish Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew. In what must have been a nerve-wracking presentation in front of a roomful of FOI practitioners and campaigners - not to mention her predecessor! - she delivered a creditable performance. In particular she warned government and others that her office was not going to stop pushing the boundaries of legislation, and in particular the need to address the democratic deficit caused by the failure to extend the coverage of the Act to follow both the public pound, and as importantly, public services.
It will be important for supporters of extending the Act’s coverage to continue to point to the ‘elephant in the room’ (As Brodie LLP’s Christine O’Neill put it) of the Scottish Government’s Freedom of Information (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill. A missed opportunity to address the real problem in the legislation, and ensure that all public service deliverers need be transparent in their work for us - whatever sector they come from.
And that absolute exemption for communications with the monarch or their heir? And indeed communications about those communications? Was that lifted from the UK Act to create a glaring anomaly in the transparency agenda just to shield the Scottish Government from embarrassing requests about Brian Souter’s knighthood? The seminar remained silent.