In recent months there has been a range of new legislation aimed at improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the Scottish public sector which, of course, includes the Scottish Information Commissioner.
The Public Services Reform Bill
The new 'Public Services Reform (PSR) Bill', introduced on 28 May 2009, contains a wide range of measures designed to simplify public bodies, as well as simplifying how the Government legislates in relation to these. Included in the Bill are order-making powers which would enable Scottish Ministers to make fundamental changes to Scottish public authorities, including the abolition or amendment of functions, through secondary (rather than primary) legislation.
The Commissioner gave evidence calling for the removal of his Office from this Bill, on the grounds that the anticipated 'Scottish Parliamentary Commissions and Commissioners etc. Bill' should be the primary vehicle for such changes.
The PSR Bill was passed at Stage 1 during January 2010, with Ministers proposing that orders under the Bill relating to Parliamentary officeholders would only be possible if instigated by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB), rather than Ministers. The Bill is expected to come into force later in 2010.
The Scottish Parliamentary Commissions and Commissioners etc. Bill
In the meantime, the 'Scottish Parliamentary Commissions and Commissioners etc. Bill' was introduced on 27 January 2010. This Bill follows the report of the 'Review of SPCB Supported Bodies' Committee, which was approved in Parliament in June 2009. Giving evidence to the Committee in 2009, the Commissioner raised concerns about the need to preserve the independence of his role, in keeping with the intent of Parliament when the FOI Act was enacted.
The new Bill streamlines the terms and conditions of Scotland's six Parliamentary officeholders (including the Scottish Information Commissioner), and proposes an extended role for the SPCB in directing and approving certain aspects of the Commissioners' work – e.g. in terms of strategic planning and the appointment of advisers. The Bill does not, however, propose direct interference with investigations.
The Commissioner is monitoring the progress of both these Bills, and he will make further representations where appropriate.
The Housing (Scotland) Bill
The new Housing (Scotland) Bill, introduced during January 2010, includes measures which relate to the access of information. Having restricted the formal consultation on extending the FOI Act to only one housing association – the Glasgow Housing Association – the Minister proposed that new measures in the Housing Bill would improve access to information for other housing association tenants.
The new Bill proposes a Charter which would encourage housing associations to make more information available to tenants. The Commissioner has accepted an invitation to take part in the consultation on the Charter during 2010.