Scotland FOI Modifications Disappoint Reformers

21 January 2013

The Scottish Parliament has passed amendments to the freedom of information law, but only made what critics called a “timid” move toward expanding its scope as sought by reformers.

The bill approved Jan. 16 would strengthen enforcement against destruction of documents and unify at 15 years the time frame for releasing historical documents.    

However, it would not extend the 2002 FOI law to include private organizations that are contracted with to perform governmental functions, such as providing public housing. Covering the estimated 130 such “arms-length” bodies was the major improvement sought by reformers, including the information commissioner.

Although proposed amendments on this subject were defeated, a government minister offered some concessions during the debate.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that arm’s-length bodies at the local level will be brought under the act using disgressionare authority already in Section 5 of the law, but never before used. Sturgeon also promised further review of the subject. “I recognise the appetite for further extension,” she said.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie called Sturgeon’s ALEOs announcement a “timid response.”

The government had previously backed off a proposal to eliminate the public interest test in relation to information about the British royal family. (See previous report.)

The bill would eliminate a time limit for bringing charges of document destruction.  The current standard requires that prosecution occur within six months after the destructions occurred, a period often completed before enforcers were aware of the crime. The bill will permit prosecution within 6 months after the prosecutor has evidence of a possible offense. No charges could be brought after three years since the offense was committed.

The bill also would bring all the country’s public authorities in line with the policy of publishing all closed historical records after 15 years rather than 30.

The full debate is in the Offical Report of the Scottish Parliament.

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