Watch: MSPs demands for “wholesale” reform to freedom of information in Scotland

14/06/2017
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Petition demanding Scottish Government become more open receives almost 8000 signatures

THE SCOTTISH PARLIAMNET has debated an open letter by 23 journalists, calling for reform to the handling of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests made to public bodies including the Scottish Government.

The debate was scheduled after a motion lodged two weeks ago by Labour MSP Neil Findlay, relating to an open letter signed by 23 of Scotland’s leading journalists was issued to the Scottish parliament, criticising the handling of FoI requests by the Scottish Government.

The letter claimed that FoI requests had been screened by senior government advisers for “potential political damage”, that requests had been blocked refused or delayed for “tenuous reasons” and that Scottish Government officials had taken control of requests to other government agencies without consent from those making enquiries.

The letter was jointly published on CommonSpace and The Ferret new media sites.

Speaking in the Scottish Parliament chamber last night, Findlay said: “Just two weeks ago, 23 prominent journalists signed an open letter to this parliament raising very serious concerns about how FoI is being mishandled. Deliberately mishandled in my view.

“I particularly want to thank the Ferret and CommonSpace for their excellent work on this issue,” he added.

Findlay, who often uses FoI to investigate Scottish Government activities, said: “My office uses FoI regularly to try and hold those in power to account. Time and again the government routinely blocks or redacts the release of information. We are regularly told the meetings listed in ministerial diaries have no agenda, no minutes and no notes taken because no substantive government business was discussed.”

Findlay reeled off a list of meetings between senior Scottish Government figures and private business and lobbying interests of which, he claimed, no records had been kept. SNP politicians including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and education minister John Swinney met with private groups including Ineos and Charlotte Street Partners, as well as public bodies such as the local government organisation Cosla, in meetings where no notes were held.

Findlay also said that there were similar problems of FoI mishandling relating to other public bodies.

Read more – Journalists’ open letter on freedom of information policy in Scotland

 

Calling for action, he said: “I am today calling on this parliament to take these matters very seriously indeed. Scotland is not a pioneer in open government, it’s a country where there is a systematic avoidance of scrutiny and accountability from the highest level down. I’m calling on the standards and proceedures committee to enquire into the claims made by the 23 journalists. There must who a wholsesale review of the way the government handles FoI.”

Scottish Green MSP Andy Wightman, who has also used FoI extensively as a land rights activist and researcher, suggested three improvements to FoI. These included changes to the review of FoI decisions, a “log” where FoI requests and releases could be registered to cover all decisions, and changes to the use of copyright in FoI releases, which some public bodies have used to stop the publication of materials release to FoI applicants.

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.

Controversy around the hand of FoI requests broke out into the open in April, when the former Scottish Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, whose job it was to enforce compliance with the legislation, retired from her post and criticized Scottish Government ministers for their “totally unacceptable” handling of FoI requests.

A petition on the campaigning website 38 Degrees, calling on the Scottish Government to “do more to abide by freedom of information laws”, had reached 7,878 signatures at the time of publication.

Scottish Conservative MSP Graham Simpson said: “A free press and an open government are essential to our democracy. There should always be a tension between press and government.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott backed a “full review” into FoI.

Richard Lenonard said practices of secrecy were “supported tonight by the total silence of SNP MSPs”, none of whom spoke on the motion, whith the exception of criticisms Scottish Government business manager Joe Fitzpatrick.

Responding to the criticisms, Fitzpatrick said: “As a country we can be proud on our record of freedom of information.”

He said that over 2000 FoI requests were received annually, a substantial increase.

He claimed that Scotland is “ahead of the international field” when it comes to openness and transparency though he also said “we are not where we want to be”, in relation to the handling of FoI responsibilities.

Picture courtesy of LornaRphoto

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