Is information in Scotland free?

11 March 2019

Video: Renée Bleau

Scottish Parliament calls for views on potential reform of Freedom of Information legislation

The Scottish Parliament has announced that there will be a review of Freedom of Information legislation.

The Public Audit and Post-legislative Committee (PAPLS) is looking for written submissions from citizens to give feedback on the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

On 1 March, Jenny Marra MSP, Convener of the PAPLS, said: “We have heard a number of concerns here in Parliament, that the scope of the Act is not broad enough, that there is not enough access to information.”

Daren Fitzhenry, Scottish Information Commissioner, said: “Scottish FOI law is used right across Scotland every day by people who want to access the information that’s important to them.

“We regularly see the benefits of FOI in driving change and improving understanding. But there are some areas of concern about FOI. It’s essential these concerns are addressed so that we can continue to see those benefits.

“So, I very much welcome the Scottish Parliament’s decision to hold post-legislative scrutiny of the FOI (Scotland) Act 2002 this year. The current law needs an update and I hope it’ll improve access to information and strengthen the remedies to fix poor FOI practice.”

Nik Williams, Project Manager at Scottish PEN, was supportive of the call, saying the current law in Scotland was not “fit for purpose.”

He said: “Expanding FOI laws to cover private companies who deliver public service, establishes a level playing field for everyone in Scotland.

“As it stands, it is a postcode lottery: where your ability to access information, is predicated on where you live and who delivers your public service”.

At the annual FOI conference in Edinburgh last December, Ferret journalist Rob Edwards emphasised the importance of reforming FOI laws for housing associations.

He said: “Since 2005 at least 15 000 households have lost their rights to request information from their landlords since ownership of their homes was transferred from local authorities to housing associations.

“These are not just airy-fairy rights that make no difference to people. They are rights that can help them better their lives.

“Why should council tenants or prospective tenants be able to ask about rents, repairs and future plans, but housing association tenants be deprived of such rights?”

He added: “And if it takes two decades for successive governments to extend FOI law to one long-promised sector, how long is it going to take to extend it to other sectors that use public money to enact public responsibility – such as arms-length local authority companies providing public services, or the network of agencies that support public/private infrastructure partnerships?”

In June 2017, a number of prominent journalists across various Scottish media outlets sent an open letter to Holyrood, questioning the Scottish Government’s commitment to “becoming more open, accountable and responsive.”

The announcement follows a recent expression of urgency by the UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham to consider reform of the FOI Act 2000 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

She said: “Information rights are now a central plank of modern democracies, being all about trust and confidence people have in government institutions.  Simply put, freedom of information and data protection support the legitimacy of public administration.”

The deadline for written submissions is on Friday 10 May at 5pm. Responses should be sent to foisa.review@parliament.scot.

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