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Third survey shows increased public awareness of freedom of information

Image of filing Cabinet with documents flying out of itNEWS RELEASE:  Monday December 12th 2005

Public awareness of the rights provided under Freedom of Information legislation in Scotland is rising, and people are more likely to use its powers than at any time since its introduction nearly a year ago.

A new survey undertaken on behalf of the Scottish Information Commissioner found that people know more about the role of the Commissioner, the rights afforded by the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, and are more likely to request information from Scottish public authorities.

It confirmed that public awareness of both the Act and the Commissioner's role have continued to increase significantly during the year to October. Almost 60 per cent of people had definitely heard of the Act while 20 per cent definitely had, or thought they had, heard of the Commissioner.

However, the survey - the third of its kind since August 2004 - also reports a decline in opinion that the authorities are becoming more open and accountable as a result of the Act. The number of people who "agreed strongly" with that proposition fell from 47 to 34 per cent between April and October this year.

The proportion of respondents to the survey carried out by Scottish Opinion who had made a written request for information held by a public authority has risen from 4 to 8 per cent. The likelihood of using the legislation to seek information is higher amongst those who have greatest awareness of the Act and its powers.

Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, commented: "Again we have seen a steady increase in the number of people who are definitely aware of the Freedom of Information Act, showing a rise from 30 to 57 per cent during the year to October, during which period the Act actually took effect.

"Already the Act is being used by thousands of people across Scotland and we can expect that number to grow as awareness increases of its potential use and relevance to individuals

"The nature of requests being made under the Act and the types of people using their new powers, be they ordinary members of the public, journalists, business people or voluntary organisations, is broadly in line with the first year experience of other democracies where similar laws have been introduced.

"However the number of appeals to my office is significantly higher than expected, and that suggests that some authorities are still coming to terms with the requirements of the Act, whether it be in providing information requested or in justifying withholding it. Whatever the initial challenge caused by implementation I think it is important for all public authorities to realise the long-term benefits of openness, transparency and accountability to the public."

The Commissioner will be addressing these issues in a speech to a "Freedom of Information, One Year On" conference at Heriot Watt University on Monday, December 12th.

For further information, contact Claire Sigsworth on 01334 464610 or out of hours on 07976 511752

Notes to Editors:

Methodology

Scottish Opinion was commissioned to use their in-house Omnibus poll to conduct the fieldwork. 1004 people were interviewed by telephone between 18 and 25 October 2005 to provide a data set with a maximum standard error of +/- 3.1% at the 95% confidence interval.

The sample surveyed was fully representative of the social demographic spread of the Scottish population: the Scottish Opinion Omnibus service is based on the entire Scottish electoral roll. Results were weighted to represent the Scottish population demographics regarding age, sex and socio-economic group, and were also made available by region.

1) The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002

  • The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) provides a statutory right of access to all information held by Scottish public authorities. This right came into effect on 1 January 2005.
  • Around 10,000 public authorities in Scotland are covered by FOISA. They include the Scottish Parliament and Executive, police forces, the NHS, local authorities, education institutions, and publicly owned companies.
  • Information can only be withheld by a public authority if it falls under one of the exemptions listed in FOISA.
  • If an individual believes an authority is wrong to withhold information, they ultimately have a right of appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner, who can force release.

2) The Scottish Information Commissioner

  • Kevin Dunion the Scottish Information Commissioner is a fully independent public official, appointed by the Queen on the nomination of the Scottish Parliament.
  • His duties and powers are to ensure that people get the information from Scottish public authorities to which they are entitled.
  • His role actively promotes and enforces compliance with FOISA.
  • He has to date issued 68 formal decisions.

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