Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Today brings a key decision for our Freedom to ask for Information

The Campaign for Freedom of Information
has driven the campaign

Today (Wednesday) a key opportunity presents itself for our Scottish Parliament to take a second step towards an opener, more transparent Scotland. Its Finance Committee, having taken one step in that direction, receive the Scottish Government’s Freedom of Information (Scotland) (Amendment) Bill back to discuss submitting amendments to its provisions. The one step forward they have already taken is to issue a report at stage one criticising key aspects of the original legislation - the lack of any concrete proposals to deal with the crucial problem of the increasing delivery of our public services by non-public organisations, and the Amendment Bill’s attempt to ape the ill-considered Westminster exemption barring any enquiry into communications with the Monarch or her heirs (the so-called ‘Royal’ exemption).

High Ground?
While the public pronouncements of the Scottish Government have consistently sought to take the accountable high ground in the freedom of information (FOI) debate - they even have their ‘Six principles of FOI’ rapidly moving deeper into the bowels of the SG website - their record in practice has left some observers wondering what the real agenda is.

And this isn’t a reference to high-profile controversies like attempting to take the Commissioner to the Court of Session over revealing whether legal advice on the EU and an independent scotland, or over the release of the figures they had commissioned on reform of the Council Tax. The problem this time is that a clear opportunity to amend major flaws in the law offered by the introduction of an Amendment Bill, has so far not been taken; a huge disappointment to campaigners and practitioners.

Ten years of no use
Despite the concern expressed ever since the original Act was passed - concern that delivery of public services by non-public bodies removes them from the public scrutiny intended in that Act - governments since have neither used the provisions in the law to ensure such bodies were covered, nor have they made any attempt to change the law to create automatic coverage.

The announcement of an Amendment Bill by the new majority government gave campaigners hope that the consultation on designating some non-public bodies the previous minority administration had started and then dropped, would be revived. But no such proposal emerged.

The Bill that was deemed worthy of Parliamentary time introduced a small number of worthy improvements it is true, but the claim that it would ‘ensure that the legislation remains fully effective’ has a hollow ring to it. The Finance Committee’s Stage One Report outlined much of the evidence outlining why variation of service delivery is eroding the effectiveness of the legislation.

Committee Opportunity

Nicola Sturgeon - her withdrawal of the
Royal exemption is welcome
The Committee this morning has a number of important amendments to the Amendment Bill to consider. It is to be welcomed that the government has seen the sense in deleting its new ‘absolute’ Royal exemption. However tackling the major flaw of the erosion of coverage is still not being done. Even the review of Section 5 that his proposed is only scheduled to be done every three years, and not start until 2016! As the Scottish Information Commissioner says “given that the section 5 power has now lain dormant for ten years, I would question whether it is appropriate to delay the laying of an initial report for a further three and a half years, until June 2016.”

Fortuitously, a series of amendments have been laid before the Committee, by one of its members, Elaine Murray MSP. While there may be a technical issue with one, overall they would mean a huge step towards re-establishing Scotland’s FOI regime as a leading example to other countries, and a powerful utility in bringing openness and transparency to our public services. Let’s hope our representatives on the Finance Committee support them.

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