Improving transparency and accountability in our public services

Right to Access Information (FoI)

News, Scottish Policy, Uncategorized Jan 05, 2015 Add a comment

The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FoISA) came into force ten years ago and gives people an enforceable right to access information held by certain bodies with devolved public functions in Scotland. For example councils, health boards and Universities. It is also 10 years since the introduction of the right to access information held by UK Government and public bodies such as the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

So what difference has the right made? Research, conducted by Ipsos MORI in October 2014 found that public awareness of FOI is at an all-time high of 84%, 95% of the Scottish public thinks that the right to access information held by public authorities is important while just 8% of people feel that freedom of information (FOI) is a waste of public money.

According to the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland the enforceable right has played a major part in informing the public about the state of public services. The Campaign’s director, Maurice Frankel, said: “The FOI Act has been responsible for a new generation of official data showing where standards of public services are falling short, regulators are failing to keep up and policies are not having the promised effect.” But the Campaign said that the increasing use of private contractors and others to deliver public services is weakening the public’s right to know. Now is the time for FoISA to be extended to a range of new bodies so that the public’s right to know remains robust and relevant to our lives and concerns.

There are numerous examples of how using this enforceable right has benefitted service users and staff alike, individuals and communities For example much of the home support provided to elderly or vulnerable people is supplied in short 15-minute visits commissioned from private providers. It is often impossible to provide the range of support people may need in this time, including help in getting out of bed, dressing, bathing, using the toilet and taking medicines. An FOI survey carried out by UNISON in 2013 found that 69% of English councils provided at least some of their care in 15 minute slots with 83% of Welsh authorities and 88% of Scottish councils doing so.

To read the Campaign’s press release in more detail go to http://www.cfoi.org.uk/2014/12/foi-act-celebrates-its-10th-anniversary-on-january-1/

The Scottish Information Commissioner enforces the right to access information and she has declared that ‘Access to information is one of a range of mechanisms through which citizens can engage with public bodies and hold them to account for their performance, their spending and their decision-making. Scottish FOI is in generally good health and is a right that is known about, valued, and used. Data from public authorities suggest that over 60,000 FOI requests were made in 2013/14, with more than 90% resulting all or some of the information being provided, and less than 1% being appealed to me.’

“It’s not all positive news though. At the same time as support for FOI has increased, real concerns have arisen that FOI rights are being lost as the delivery of public services changes. For example, in the 10 years since FOI came into force, it is estimated that over 15,000 households in Scotland have lost information rights through the transfer of local authority stock to housing associations. It is a loss not only to the households themselves but to the public at large, calling to question whether such a vital service can truly be open and accountable. I am also not convinced that enough consideration has been given to extending the coverage of FOI to new areas.

“That is why I am preparing a Special Report for the Scottish Parliament to explore this important issue. My aim is for the Report to promote a constructive and grown-up debate about how we collectively ensure that rights keep pace with change, rather than fall increasingly behind.”

The Commissioner’s Special Report will be published in January 2015.

For more information go to the OSIC website http://www.itspublicknowledge.info/home/News/20141211.aspx

The Scottish Government has announced that it will publish a consultation paper on the extension of FoISA to new bodies, and other matters, in Spring 2015. In the meantime you may want to check out the information it produces on FoI at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/About/Information/FOI

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