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Looking ahead

Freedom of Information Annual Report 2010/11

Here, I give an insight into a number of developments to date in 2011-12, and some of the key activities planned for the remainder of the financial year.

Caseload

The upturn in the number of appeals being made to me, which was evident by the end of 2010-11, is even more pronounced in the first few months of 2011-12. It is still not clear why this should be the case, but it could be an indicator that authorities are receiving more requests.

There is also some evidence that many of the appeals are for technical failings on the part of some authorities ? such as not responding to requests in time or at all.  Cuts in public expenditure may lead to more people using their rights to ask for information concerning matters affecting their jobs or services, with authorities coming under pressure to respond despite constrained staff resources and training budgets.

"Cuts in public expenditure may lead to people using their rights to ask for information concerning matters affecting their jobs or services."

Kevin Dunion, Scottish Information Commissioner

However, my office is still aiming to close cases in an ever shorter period, with a target to close cases on average within 20 weeks. Despite the reductions in my staff complement which have already begun to take place, and with budget cuts projected at least into 2013/14, I hope that investment in a new case management system will allow case closure times to be kept at that level.

Clarifying the law

The legal interface between freedom of information and data protection laws has caused problems ever since FOISA was introduced.  In Scotland in particular, there have been a number of disputed cases regarding whether any individual could be identified if statistics were disclosed.  A series of court cases in Scotland and in England have helped to clarify the law such that, put simply, if no-one is identifiable when the statistic is put into the public domain, then that statistic is not personal information. During 2011/12 this has allowed us to issue decisions and close cases, regarding requests for the number of sex offenders in certain areas, which had been suspended whilst waiting for the outcome of those court actions.

Centre for Freedom of Information in Scotland

The Centre for Freedom of Information in Scotland, a collaboration with the School of Law at the University of Dundee, continues to attract large numbers to its seminar series.  As well as bringing together practitioners from across Scotland to hear of current developments in Scottish law and FOI practice, the Centre is also an important venue for comparative international exchange, and speakers in the past have come from USA, Ireland and Slovenia.  The most recent of these distinguished guests, in October 2011, was Professor John Angel, Principal Judge of the First Tier Tribunal in England.  Professor Angel set out the very different appeal system which exists under the UK FOI legislation compared to Scotland.

Amendment Bill

The Scottish Government has announced that there will be a Freedom of Information (Scotland) Amendment Bill to clarify and strengthen FOISA. We expect the Scottish Government to consult on the terms of that Bill in Autumn 2011. I previously asked Ministers to amend FOISA to allow prosecutions for acts of deliberate destruction, concealment etc. of information to proceed within six months of the offence having come to light as opposed to the current requirement for prosecution to take place within six months of the offence having been committed.  Given that my staff may only uncover evidence of potential wrong-doing in the course of an investigation (which normally commences several weeks after a request for information was first submitted to an authority) it is clear that the present timescale restricts the likelihood of such an offence being reported to the Procurator Fiscal within the necessary timescale.

Freedom of Information in Scotland in Practice

During 2011/12, Dundee University Press is publishing Freedom of Information in Scotland in Practice, a handbook setting out my current interpretation of FOISA and the Environmental Information Regulations.  It is the first publication providing guidance on the Scottish legislation since the laws came into effect in 2005.  At over 500 pages, there is detailed consideration of some of the key issues of interpretation, such as the need for authorities to properly apply the harm test when considering exemptions.  The way in which the Commissioner's office conducts investigations and practice assessments is also set out.  It is intended that this should be a useful resource to those in authorities handling requests for information as well as for those who are making requests for information or appeals to the Scottish Information Commissioner.

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