Thursday, June 07, 2012

Scottish Government's Freedom of Information 'reform' is too limited

This article by the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland on the Scottish Government's Freedom of Information (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill was published by The Scotsman on 7 June 2012.
It's always worrying when government ministers boast how good they are at disclosing information that we are entitled to know. 
And when Brian Adam MSP, in announcing the Freedom of Information (FoI) Bill, tells us how good the Scottish Government is getting in disclosing information, campaigners feel the news is being managed. 
Ironically, it is what he hasn’t said, and what isn’t in the bill that is the problem. Increasing the range and number of organisations covered by FoI in Scotland is key to any legal reform. 
However, arm’s length organisations (ALOs), housing associations, voluntary organisations and private sector bodies that deliver public services are just some of the categories missing from the newly published bill. 
We are urging the Scottish Parliament to amend the bill to ensure people retain a strong right to information and can access the kind of information they want rather than creating fortresses for some bodies. There is also a public gain in individuals exercising their right as FoI has been proven to improve the design, funding and delivery of public services. 
Despite three consultations, the clear view of the Scottish Information Commissioner, the opinion of the public and now with an absolute majority in parliament, this government has failed to extend the law’s coverage. 
That is not the action of a government committed to transparency. And neither is the proposal to hide communications with the monarch or her heirs behind an absolute exemption– an amendment copied from Westminster. 
This means, for example, that it will no longer be possible to seek information on royal attempts to influence policy. Or to investigate any communications between governments and the monarchy over, say, the award of honours. Despite the publicity that the bill will “strengthen and improve” the legislation in Scotland, we believe it must be significantly amended so that the focus remains on the public’s right to know. The bill has welcome elements, such as a reduction of the 30-year rule, but amounts to a wasted opportunity for progressive reform.
Carole Ewart is co-convener of Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland.