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Freedom of information law

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Freedom of information law "not fit for purpose", campaigners say

MSPs must back reforms to create a “strong culture of transparency and accountability” in the public sector, campaigners have said

Scotland’s freedom of information law is not fit for purpose and MSPs must back "radical reforms" to create a “strong culture of transparency and accountability” in the public sector, campaigners have said.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoIS) will today launch a report on the current legislation at an event in the Scottish Parliament.

The group have produced a line-by-line “traffic light” report, highlighting areas in red, amber or green and proposing changes.

MSPs have been invited to attend the event to discuss the report findings.

Recommendations made in the report include “following the public pound” – making any organisation that does work on behalf of the public, using public funds, liable to freedom of information law.

The report also suggests the law be updated to encourage more proactive publication of information by public bodies.

The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FoISA), which came into force in 2005, is in the process of being reviewed.

The Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee is looking into the effectiveness of FoISA.

The committee took evidence from journalists, campaigners and the public on the scope of the law and the compliance of public authorities with it.

It is expected the committee will report on its inquiry soon.

The decision to re-examine FoISA came after journalists and campaigners highlighted frequent failings on the part of public authorities to meet the statutory requirements of the Act, as well as instances of apparent mishandling of information requests by the Scottish Government. 

The Scottish Information Commissioner Daren Fitzhenry has supported making some changes to the law, including extending the powers of the commissioner’s office to enforce good practice at local authorities and public agencies.

In November he told Holyrood: “The post-legislative scrutiny of FOISA comes at an excellent time. In January, it will be 15 years since the law came into effect, and it’s time to look at whether it’s still fit for the modern world. 

"Understandably, there are challenges from all sides, from requesters dissatisfied with the length of time they have to wait, and authorities unhappy with the resources some requests demand.

"However, we should not lose sight of the benefits of this law to transform people’s participation in our democratic process. Since 2005, we have seen an increase in the quantity of information publicly available and in the volume of requests being made.

"The law enables people to engage meaningfully with decision makers and provides a clear route via which to challenge non-disclosure. It is easy to take the availability of information for granted, but such openness was not the norm prior to 2005 and it is not the norm elsewhere.”

But the campaigners want the changes to go further.

Carole Ewart, Convener of CFoIS, said: “We are rightly celebrating 15 years of this very important and welcome legislation, something Scotland should be proud of.

“But we need an Act that the country can continue to be proud of and unfortunately we have found that too much of the Act is not fit for purpose, including the kinds of bodies it covers and the kinds of exemptions allowed, not all of which are subject to the public interest test.”

UNISON, the union, are also supporting the CFoIS campaign.

UNISON Scotland policy officer Stephen Low said: “Our recent survey of members working in FOI showed that many are overworked and under pressure and we have asked the committee to emphasise the importance of sufficient staff, training and resources to deliver on the public’s right to know.”

Labour MSP Neil Findlay, who is chairing the meeting, said: “Tonight’s meeting is important as we celebrate 15 years of FoI law. However this legislation requires drastic reform. It is vital for our democracy that FoI is exercised in the spirit of transparency.

"That is why CFoIS has set out a report with recommendations of where the legislation can be improved.”

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