Scottish Commissioner Sees Growing Number of Appeals

20 September 2012

New Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew has reported a hike in the number of appeals to her office over freedom of information request denials and criticized the Scottish government presiding over an “unacceptable” erosion access to information. 

 “It is simply not acceptable that citizens’ rights continue to be eroded through complex changes in the delivery of services,” Agnew said, according to an article in The Express, and another in The Scotsman.  She added, “This must be looked at as an immediate priority.”

The number of appeals has increased by 24 percent, according to the 2011/2012 report from Agnew’s office, issued Sept. 19. There were 524 appeals, up by 100 from the previous year.

Agnew also warned, “An ever-growing concern is the loss of rights occurring through the delivery of public services by arm’s-length organisations and third parties.”

“The current economic situation is leading to an increase in freedom of information 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,” Agnew said in a statement. “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.”

The report “highlights the efficiencies made by the Commissioner’s office over the last year under the leadership of Rosemary Agnew’s predecessor, Kevin Dunion,” according to a press release. “These include a significant reduction in the time taken for the Commissioner to investigate an appeal and issue a decision (63% were closed within four months, compared with  33% last year), despite the sharp increase in the number of appeals received, and funding cuts to the Commissioner’s office.” Agnew took office May 1, 2012.

Political Reaction Negative

Opposition parties used the report to criticize the Scottish National Party government, with Labour member of parliament Paul Martin saying, “The Freedom of Information Act is a pillar of our democracy and the SNP is treating it with utter contempt.” The Scottish Conservative spokesman, Gavin Brown, said, “This report certainly raises some fundamental questions about the Scottish National Party’s attitude towards Freedom of Information.”

The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Willie Rennie, said, “The fog of secrecy enveloping the SNP government grows thicker by the day.”

“A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “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.”

Legislation in Works

The government has proposed a FOI bill, but it has been criticized as not going far enough, including in recent testimony by Agnew. She wrote an op-ed article published Sept. 16 in The Scotsman.

Regarding the legislation, she wrote:

I welcome the objectives of the new bill to strengthen and clarify our FOI legislation. In my evidence last week to the ­finance committee, I stressed that in most cases I am supportive of the tidying exercise underway. If passed, plans to reduce the time limits where exemptions can be applied and to redraft some of the more opaque provisions will improve our freedom of information regime for the better.

I do, though, have two very significant areas of concern: the urgent need to ­address the loss of rights due to ­changes in public service delivery, and the ­proposed introduction of a wide-ranging new absolute exemption.

Her first point refers to the transfer of government functions to private sector organization exempt from the FOI law. “Our own research indicates strong public support for FOI to be extended to bodies delivering these services, yet our legislation is not keeping pace,” she wrote.

“My other concern is the proposal to create a new absolute exemption for any information that relates to communications with Her Majesty, her heir or the second in line to the throne,” Agnew said.

The Scottish Parliament’s Finance Committee has just concluded its oral evidence sessions at Stage 1 of the consideration of the bill.

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