Scotland’s Information Commissioner has warned that complex changes to the way that public services are delivered are harming the public’s ability to access information in the way that they should be able to.
Launching her annual report, Rosemary Agnew has warned that it:
“is simply not acceptable that citizens’ rights continue to be eroded through complex changes in the delivery of services.”
The report, published today notes that:
- Publishing the report Ms Agnew explained:The Commissioner’s office received 524 appeals in 2011/12, compared with 424 the previous year (a 23% increase).
- 77% of appeals came from ordinary members of the public, 12% from media and 6% from commercial or private organisations.
- The share of appeals relating to the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament increased to 28%, compared to 15% the previous year. The share of appeals relating to local government remained steady at 45% of the total caseload.
- The number of appeals against Scottish ministers increased by 40 to 110 in 2011-12, most of which were settled without investigation.
- In those cases where Ms Angew was forced to issue a ruling, 23 cases went against the Scottish Government. A further six were partially upheld, while 15 went in favour of ministers.
“The current economic situation is leading to an increase in FOI requests to authorities, as people naturally want to understand the reasons behind decisions that affect them. At the same time, authorities are finding themselves with fewer resources to respond. My priority as Commissioner is to help the public make better targeted, more effective requests, while also developing resources to support public authorities in responding to those requests faster and more efficiently.
“However, an ever-growing concern is the loss of rights occurring through the delivery of public services by “arms-length” organisations and third parties. FOI was introduced for a reason – to ensure that the delivery of public services and the spending of public money is transparent, open and accountable. It is simply not acceptable that citizens’ rights continue to be eroded through complex changes in the delivery of services. This must be looked at as an immediate priority.”
Her comments come as the Scottish Parliament is considering the Freedom of Information (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill to amend provisions of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 relating to the effect of various exemptions and the time limit for certain proceedings.
With judges having already ruled that correspondence between Prince Charles and Government Ministers should be made public, Scotland’s Information Commissioner told the committee scrutinising the Bill at Holyrood that amendments within the Bill to keep secret correspondence between the Royal Family and Scottish Ministers represented a “worrying precedent.”
Responding to the annual report, a spokesperson for the Scottish Government has said:
“It is for individual Scottish public authorities to develop their own approach to handling FOI requests, in accordance with the FOI Act and it is a matter for the commissioner to judge how they are dealing with FOI requests.
“However, as with any process, there is always room for improvement and the Scottish government will be happy to work with the commissioner to share good practice and make improvements where possible.
“On the subject of extending coverage to other organisations, the Scottish government has been clear that, after we have completed parliamentary scrutiny of the current bill, we want to consider the issue of extension of coverage and have an open discussion to inform any future decisions.”
However, in the week that the Scottish Government formally lodged a legal appeal against a ruling by the Information Commissioner that they should publish all information related to their assertions on the status of an independent Scotland within the EU, opposition parties have been quick to turn on the SNP.
Accusing the nationalists of contemptible behaviour, Paul Martin, Scottish Labour’s Parliamentary Business Manager declared:
“The fact that the number of complaints from members of the public about the SNP Government has almost doubled in a year is symptomatic of the SNP’s obsession with secrecy.
“The increasing number of Scots having to drag information from the SNP Government kicking and screaming is deeply worrying.
“Coming in the same week as the SNP Government spending hundreds of thousands of pounds going to court to stop publishing its legal advice, I have little faith in the SNP opening up more decision-making in Scotland to public scrutiny.
“The Freedom of Information Act is a pillar of our democracy and the SNP is treating it with utter contempt.”
Scottish Lib Dem Leader, Willie Rennie was equally critical of the SNP, arguing that “the fog of secrecy enveloping the SNP government grows thicker by the day” he called on the SNP to “change course now, stop the costly legal action and extend the regime to include other public bodies that spend public money.”