It is clear from the data published today that the public are increasingly making use of their rights to information. This is sure to continue in the current economic climate, as more and more people want to understand the rationale behind spending cuts.
When public authorities receive information requests they are often faced with a choice between disclosing the information, or refusing to release it. It may well be that the refusal of the request is appropriate, for example where it involves personal data. However, as my decisions over the past year have shown, there are still many cases where authorities have not been justified in withholding information, even where the information might expose them to criticism or adverse publicity.
The good news, however, is that our survey results suggest that public authorities are becoming more comfortable with disclosing information, rather than withholding it, and these conclusions appear to be supported by the levelling-off of appeals coming to my Office. This is a positive sign, and evidence that freedom of information is now beginning to “bed in” in Scotland, with the FOI principles of openness and transparency increasingly being accepted by authorities.
The bad news, though, is a widespread concern amongst authorities that a rise in often complex requests comes at a time when there is a reduction in the resources available to deal with them. Indeed, 41% of respondents to our survey identified this as the biggest FOI challenge they faced.The Commissioner continued:
Scotland has led the way in the UK since the introduction of FOI six years ago, and the Scottish Government has demonstrated its commitment to FOI by removing exemptions that prevent the release of sensitive information after 15 years. However, the decision not to bring additional bodies, like Kilmarnock Prison or Glasgow Housing Association, under the scope of FOI in this parliament was a significant setback. Increasingly, public services are delivered by arms length organisations and private contractors, it is therefore extremely important that FOI rights continue to follow the public pound.
FOI in Scotland is at a crossroads, and now is not the time to diminish people’s rights. The public must be able to access information on how the decisions that affect public services and public spending are taken.The Annual Report reveals that:
- 408 FOI appeals were received by the Commissioner in 2010, following the refusal of information requests by Scottish public authorities;
- The Commissioner closed 456 cases;
- 249 formal decisions were issued, 50% more than in 2009;
- The Commissioner issued his 1000th decision since the introduction of FOI in 2005. 1,188 decisions had been issued by the end of the year;
- 74% of the applications were received by the Commissioner in 2010 came from members of the public;
- The number of cases closed without investigation continued to decline over the year, with a drop of 16% on 2009 figures. This suggests that there is an increasing awareness amongst requesters of the FOI appeal process;
- The Commissioner found that a public authority had breached the law in some way in 65% of the decisions issued;
- The average age of cases being dealt with by the Commissioner continued to decline during 2010, meaning that individual applications are being resolved more quickly. The average age of cases closed during 2010 was 5.2 months.
An enhanced version of the Report including video footage, interactive tables, infographic and supporting statistics, can be viewed online here.