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Scots embrace freedom of information 

Image of the cover of the Annual Report 2005 - blurry street sceneNEWS RELEASE:  Wednesday 22 February 2006

The Scottish public has enthusiastically embraced freedom of information in its first year of operation in Scotland.

That is one of the main conclusions of the Annual Report of the Scottish Information Commissioner published today (Wednesday, February 22nd 2006).

Highlights of the report include:

  • Public awareness of FOI up by 64%
  • Commissioner received 571 appeals and almost 2,500 enquiries in 2005
  • 55% of appeals from ordinary members of public
  • 7% of appeals from journalists and 20% from solicitors
  • 18% of appeals about authorities failing to respond at all to a request

Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner said, ?It needs to be emphasised that the greatest use of the new laws is by ordinary members of the public. More than half of the appeals to my office come from individuals across Scotland who want information, particular to their own circumstances or the interests of their local community, such as planning, education, health or public spending. In more than a third of cases I have ruled in favour of the disclosure of information.?

During 2005, public awareness of the Freedom of Information Act rose to 72% of people who had or thought they had heard of the Act, influenced in part by media use of the Act, at both local and national levels.

Kevin Dunion comments, ?The hard part has been done and the Act is in full use. I would hope that we can build on that so that we have a society where information is provided, and received, as part of the mature exchange of a modern democracy.?

During 2005, the Scottish Information Commissioner received 571 appeals, the majority from ordinary members of the public about the response by Scottish public authorities to their information requests. This was twice as many as the highest previous estimate. He disposed of 240 cases in 2005, 79% of these within 4 months, which compares favourably with other countries where freedom of information legislation is in place. 

Call for Better Response Rates

In his annual report, the Scottish Information Commissioner does express concern about the failure of some public authorities to respond to requests for information, otherwise known as mute or deemed refusals. Mr Dunion says, ?Often when I contact the public authority about the appeal they then release the information, but this may be months after the original request. It is perhaps not unexpected in the first year that there will be such failings, but nevertheless, I would like to see improvements in Scottish performance.

?I appreciate that Scottish public authorities had only a short period in which to prepare their organisations for the Act coming into force, but the duty to respond within 20 working days is not particularly onerous in most cases. I hope to see a radical improvement in this area in 2006.?

Majority of Appeals from the Public

The Scottish Information Commissioner is keen to dispel the myth that the Freedom of Information Act in Scotland is used predominantly by journalists. In fact, figures contained in the annual report reveal that only 7% of appeals come from the media which compares with elected representatives (6%), commercial organisations (7%) and voluntary organisations (5%). Ordinary members of the public account for more than half (55%) of all appeals to date. Solicitors made 20% of the appeals to the Commissioner although they may be acting on behalf of members of the public or businesses. With regard to the use of the Act by journalists, the Commissioner said ?It is only to be expected that journalists will use their rights and of course we can see that important disclosures, such as the surgical mortality statistics, have become public as a direct result.?

Responsible Use of FOI Advocated

Mr Dunion stressed the benefits of responsible use of the legislation saying, ?People should be aware that dashing off an e-mail with a request causes the whole might of the Act to come into effect, with obligations on authorities. This is not to discourage use of the legislation but, there is a difference between a well defined request, compared to insisting on all material held on a particular subject. Unwanted information which is then discarded has been provided at a real cost to the authority.? 

Looking Forward

Summing up the first year of freedom of information in Scotland, Mr Dunion says, ?The new law has presented many challenges to authorities but by and large they appear to have risen to the task. They have taken seriously their obligations and, in a relatively short time, they have put in place systems, trained staff, and begun to provide more information than would have previously been the case.

?It is only to be expected that some aspects of the new regime will be unwieldy and uncomfortable. Whilst it is right to keep these under review and address them, we must also guard against changes which detract from the stated intent of the legislation, to provide a rightto information and to bring about a shift in culture towards more transparency and accountability.?

ENDS

For further information, contact either:

  • David Budge on 01698 540111 (out of hours on 07831 156333)
  • Maurice Smith on 07714 769654
  • Claire Sigsworth or Paul Mutch on 01334 464610 (out of hours on 07976 511752)

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