Scottish Parliament warned action needed to protect FOI
The Scottish Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, has warned the Scottish Parliament that immediate steps must be taken to protect freedom of information (FOI) rights from the damage caused by the outsourcing of important public services. The Commissioner has made the warning in a Special Report to Parliament which is available on her website at: www.itspublicknowledge.info/reports. If you support her recommendations please let her know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Report explains that the provision to extend FOI to non-public sector organisations delivering public functions has been “woefully underused” in the ten years since FOI law came into effect, with the consequence that some public functions are no longer open to full public scrutiny.
The Commissioner’s report reflects growing concern about the impact of changes in public sector delivery on information rights. For example, since 2005, over 15,000 Scottish households have lost FOI rights following the transfer of local authority housing stock to housing associations, and the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee is currently considering a call for FOI rights to apply to all housing associations. While the Scottish Government has the power to extend FOI to third parties that provide public services, this power has only been used once in the last decade. This was in 2013 for the designation of local authority leisure and culture trusts.
Commissioner Rosemary Agnew said:
“The first decade of FOI in Scotland is a real success story. Over 60,000 requests were made last year alone, and recent research revealed that 95% of the public believe that the right of access to the information held by public bodies is important.
“Worryingly though, our right to information is being slowly eroded. Rights have been gradually lost over the last 10 years as the responsibility for public service delivery is passed to third parties. These rights are fundamental to ensuring public services are open, cost-effective and accountable to the public.
“As the models for the delivery of public functions evolve and change, it is vitally important that the public’s right to the information held about the services that deliver them are protected and strengthened”.
The Commissioner’s Special Report, FOI 10 Years On: are the right organisations covered? contains a number of recommendations for action by Scottish Government Ministers to address her concerns. The recommendations include:
· adopting a policy to ensure FOI rights are migrated whenever a body delivering public functions or services changes
· carrying out a review to identify where FOI rights have been lost over the past decade, and reinstate them
· taking steps to ensure that FOI rights apply to those bodies responsible for social housing and private prisons and
· adopting a factor based approach to wider FOI designation, to ensure that FOI rights apply to bodies which are considered to be delivering functions of a public nature.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland welcomed the report and said “We fully back the concerns of the SIC. indeed we have said since the FOISAct was passed in 2002, that a much wider range of organisations need to be covered. At that time the then Deputy FM (Jim Wallace) promised that housing associations would be considered for inclusion at an early stage. Unfortunately, successive Scottish governments have failed to act on this and the only extension has been to cover leisure and cultural trusts. It is long past time for FOI rights to cover all public services – whoever delivers them.”
The Campaign believes that the public’s right to know should be further extended to ensure accountability and transparency in the delivery of services:
“in addition to the list presented by the SIC, we could add many other bodies. Our care services are increasingly delivered under contract by voluntary or private bodies. Privatised services delivering public transport, roads maintenance, water and sewerage services et al. Even some regulatory services are now delivered by non-public bodies like the Citizens Advice Service. If the Scottish Government doesn’t grasp this challenge Ms Agnew’s concerns about the legislation being eroded will be well-founded.”
The latest Edition of Scottish Left Review carries an article by Chris Bartter of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland which explores these issues in greater detail.