Claims of mishandling and interference in dealing with requests for information
SOME OF SCOTLAND’S leading journalists have signed an open letter to Scottish parliamentarians calling for a review of Scottish Government handling of Freedom of Information (FoI) procedures, claiming widespread failures to comply with laws on the supply of information held by public bodies.
The letter, addressed to the Scottish Parliament selection panel working to appoint a new Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC), makes a series of allegations about government handling of FoI requests, including screening by senior government advisers for “potential political damage”, requests being blocked refused or delayed for “tenuous reasons” and Scottish Government officials taking control of requests to other government agencies without consent from those making enquiries.
In the open letter - which is also signed by CommonSpace - the journalists write: “Some of these experiences raise questions of whether information requests by journalists are being treated and managed differently, even though the legislation requires all requests to be handled equally and without favour or prejudice. We suspect there have been cuts in the resources and time being made available by the civil service for handling freedom of information requests.
“We are increasingly told the information we are seeking is not held where ministerial meetings with other bodies or individuals to discuss government policy are said to be informal, minutes are not taken, and records are not kept. Correspondence and reports that should be available seem not to exist. This raises the question of whether Scottish ministers and civil servants now have a practice of not recording information that would previously have been recorded.
“We are increasingly told the information we are seeking is not held where ministerial meetings with other bodies or individuals to discuss government policy are said to be informal, minutes are not taken, and records are not kept.” Open letter to Scottish Parliament panel
“The Scottish Government has described itself as a beacon of transparency under the Open Government Partnership and says it is committed to becoming more open, accountable and responsive.”
“We believe our experiences put that commitment under great doubt.”
It is signed by journalists including Severin Carrell (The Guardian), Tom Gordon (The Herald), James McEnaney (freelance), Daniel Sanderson (The Times), Andrew Picken (Sunday Post), Chris Diamond on behalf of the BBC NUJ chapel, Bernard Ponsonby on behalf of the STV NUJ chapel, David Clegg (Daily Record), Michael Blackley (Daily Mail Scotland), Paul Hutcheon (Sunday Herald), Kieran Andrews (The Courier), Simon Johnson (The Telegraph) and Ian Dunn (Scottish Catholic Observer).
It has also been signed by Billy Briggs, Fiona Davidson, Rob Edwards, Peter Geoghegan, Rachel Hamada and Layla-Roxanne Hill of The Ferret and Angela Haggerty, Nathanael Williams, David Jamieson and Michael Gray of CommonSpace.
The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 allows members of the public to request information from a range of public institutions including the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament, Police Scotland, local government, the NHS, publicly owned companies.
Public bodies are required by legislation to respond within 20 working days to requests for information.
“We need journalists probing behind the headlines and asking questions of public interest to ensure open and accountable publicly funded services, and their rights as well as their role need to be respected.” David Goldberg
The role of the SIC is to promote observance of FoI legislation.
The former SIC, Rosemary Agnew, retired from the post in April taking parting shots at Scottish Government ministers who she said were behaving in a “totally unacceptable” and “rude” manner, and in a fashion that could damage public trust in FoI procedures.
She said she would give Scottish ministers six months to properly comply with legislation before taking legal action.
Commenting on the open letter, David Goldberg, one of the founding members of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland in 1984, said: “Under international human rights law, the public have the right to form opinions but they need access to accurate and up to date information to give that right meaning and routinely that information and analysis comes via journalists.
“At a time when we are all concerned about ‘fake news’, the provenance of information is critical so it is essential that official information is published, either in response to a request or as a matter of routine, to enable greater scrutiny.
“We need journalists probing behind the headlines and asking questions of public interest to ensure open and accountable publicly funded services, and their rights as well as their role need to be respected.”
“The NUJ has been concerned for some time about the changing attitude towards FoI in Scotland, particularly in respect of Scottish government treatment of the issue.” Paul Holleran
Paul Holleran, national organiser at NUJ Scotland, said: “The NUJ has been concerned for some time about the changing attitude towards FoI in Scotland, particularly in respect of Scottish Government treatment of the issue. It appears to me there has been a change in the culture of FoI engagement by some ministers.
The approach to dealing with responses is dramatically different than the heady days of its introduction and early implementation of the FoI Act, when every effort was made to respond positively to journalistic requests. We welcome this open letter and expect a positive political response from the government and are hopeful of a healthy new era under the new commissioner.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Scotland has the most open and far-reaching freedom of information laws in the UK. We take our responsibility for FOI seriously and in the large majority of cases we respond on time and in full.
“Scotland has the most open and far-reaching freedom of information laws in the UK. We take our responsibility for FOI seriously and in the large majority of cases we respond on time and in full.” Scottish Government
“At the same time, the increasing volume and complexity of some requests can prove time consuming, and has the potential to seriously impact on the work of government. The number of FOI requests we receive has been steadily increasing, with more than 2,000 requests last year and more received in the first three months of this year than in the whole of 2007.
“Our FOI legislation is widely recognised as being robust and a recently published report from the former Scottish Information Commissioner noted that Scotland was ahead of the international field in this area.
“We are working with the Commissioner to ensure we continue to provide information in as timely a way as possible, while continuing to look for opportunities to proactively release information.”
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