Journalists raise fresh Freedom of Information worries in letter to Scottish minister

Scottish Government has pledged to change transparency practices after criticism

MANY of Scotland's leading journalists have written a second letter raising concerns over Scottish Government transparency, this time to a Scottish minister who has pledged to change the way the government deals with Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.

The letter to Scottish Government business manager Jim Fitzpatrick MSP commends him for pledging to reform FoI practises, which the initial letter to the Scottish Parliament from 23 leading Scottish journalists had criticised for a lack of transparency, but raising concerns over plans to release FoI responses immediatly to the public rather than to those making requests.

FoI legislation empowers members of the public to request information from public bodies and recieve an answer within 20 days. The letter complains that making correspondence public would undermine the FoI process - which allows members of the public to contest responses. 

The letter, is signed by Kieran Andrews (The Courier), Michael Blackley (Daily Mail), Severin Carrell (The Guardian), David Clegg (Daily Record), Chris Diamond (FoC BBC Scotland NUJ chapel, Glasgow and Edinburgh), Ian Dunn (Scottish Catholic Observer), Rob Edwards, Peter Geoghegan, Billy Briggs, Rachel Hamada and Fiona Davidson (The Ferret), Angela Haggerty, David Jamieson (CommonSpace), Paul Hutcheon (Sunday Herald), Simon Johnson (The Telegraph), James McEnaney (freelance), Jennifer McKiernan (Press and Journal), Andrew Picken (The Sunday Post), Daniel Sanderson (The Times), Craig Williams (Chair of NUJ Scottish Executive Council).

Read more – Journalists unite with open letter damning Scottish Government handling of FoI requests

The letter reads:"Firstly, can we acknowledge and welcome the comments you made in the chamber on Wednesday 21 June that the Scottish government’s recent performance on freedom of information “has not been good enough” and you are “working to improve it”.

"We are greatly encouraged by this and also look forward to your response on the substantive points made in our original letter of 31 May."

The initial letter had complained of insubtantial responses to FoI requests, that responses were late or didn't materialise, and that government special advisers were screening responses.

Fitzpatrick accepted that special advisers were viewing responses before they were sent to journalists.

The letter goes on: "We are contacting you today regarding the Scottish government’s intention to publish freedom of information responses on its website at the same time as they are sent to the requester.
"There is no doubt from our perspective that this will deter journalists and possibly members of the public from submitting requests, a position which – given your commitment to transparency - is something we are sure you do not wish to arise.

Read more – Why a public inquiry into @ScotGov's handling of FoI is now vital

"Andy Wightman MSP suggested during the debate on 21 June there should instead be a time lag, a delay between issuing a response and publication of it, and you said it was something you would take on board and consider.

"We would urge you to introduce that delay.

"The core principle at stake here is that an FoI request is part of a process which only ends when the applicant, whether a journalist, an MSP or a member of the public, accepts the response or when the appeal process is exhausted.

"The applicant's rights and central role in this process should be honoured by allowing them a period of grace to consider their response before the government’s release is published. The government may also wish to consider the effect that immediate publication has on its own opportunities to reevaluate its first response, to check whether it was sufficient and improve it at a later stage in the process.

"There is also a risk that unless the Scottish government undertakes to update each published response to explain whether that response has been accepted in full or not, or is the subject of an appeal, it will not give a complete and accurate picture of the status of each request. Equally, does the Scottish government plan to update its disclosure log with review responses, and by linking them directly to the original response or request?

Read more – MSPs demands for “wholesale” reform to freedom of information in Scotland

"Without that, that partial picture cannot offer complete transparency. That may undermine the confidence of applicants that their application is being properly and fully considered, without prejudice."

The Scottish Parliament is currently selecting a new Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC), whose job it is to enforce FoI legislation.

Campaigners and opposition politicians have called for an independent review into FoI practices.

Picture: Scottish Parliament TV

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