The challenge facing public authorities in Scotland is converting compliance of the Freedom of Information legislation to a real change in culture, claims the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, at the launch of his third Annual Report today, Thursday 8 March 2007. Find a link to the Annual Report through the following web page: Annual reports of the Scottish Information Commissioner.
Authorities have generally responded well to the legislation in the two years since its inception, but sustained effort and leadership commitment is now required to build upon the positive start.
Although the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act has helped to "promote a new culture of openness in place of an old culture of secrecy", the Scottish Information Commissioner has fired a warning in his annual report that "a lot of work still lies ahead of us".
Access to information has to become a part of the way the public sector does business.
The Scottish Information Commissioner has received 1082 appeals in the two years since the Act came into operation ? running at a level which, pro rata, is double that received by the Information Commissioner south of the border.
Of the thousands of Scots who made valid requests for information to public authorities over the last 12 months, 511 appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner.
The sustained high volume applications to the Scottish Information Commissioner can be largely due to the increased uptake of the Freedom of Information Act by ordinary members of the public ? 65 per cent of all applications for appeals in 2006 came from individuals in Scotland (compared to 55 per cent in 2005).
This indicates that more members of the public in Scotland are using the legislation to find out information about issues that most concern them. The figure also belies the common view that the legislation is only being used by the legal profession (12 per cent), members of the media (8 per cent) and politicians (6 per cent).
The 511 appeals to the Scottish Information Commissioner covered a range of subjects including health, crime, housing, planning, employment, environment and education ? issues that can affect everyone living in Scotland.
Highlights of the report include:
Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, said, "Our own freedom of information law is one of the strongest in the world in terms of its provisions, and reflecting upon the second full year of operation of the legislation, most public authorities have risen to the challenges presented to them and the public is increasingly confident that their requests will be handled appropriately. We have seen further examples of public authorities releasing information into the public domain that previously would not have been available.
"However, whilst there is much to celebrate, there are still significant areas for improvement and we cannot afford to be complacent. I will be commissioning research in 2007 to look beyond the response to individual requests for information to find out whether authorities are changing how they record, retain and publish information."
Increased public awareness of Freedom of Information Law
Public awareness of the new freedom of information rights grew markedly, up from 47 per cent before the Act was in force to 72 per cent in the first year of operation, which is reflected in the sustained high volume of requests for information to public authorities. Cases ranged from local matters (such as registered sex offenders, local authority housing repairs) to matters of national and even international significance (such as the Dungavel Detention Centre and rendition flights at Prestwick Airport).
The Commissioner said, "The public recognise that FOISA is a powerful tool and the indications are that they are seeing the benefits of it. People are confident that more information will come into the public domain as a result and fewer believe authorities can get round the Act. However, people still remain to be convinced that Scottish public authorities are changing culture to become more open and accountable. FOI in Scotland has been a major success, but we cannot be complacent ? our experience is still very new."
58 per cent of applications concerned a public authority?s refusal to release information however the Scottish Information Commissioner also investigated authorities that claimed not to hold the information requested (14 per cent)
The Commissioner also issued 102 information notices to public authorities in 2006 following delays in requests for information which he required for his investigations.
There were 236 decision notices issued in 2006 ? a rise of 162 per cent on last year when only 90 were issued. However, 73 applications were informally resolved, with the public authority agreeing to release the requested information. In 22 per cent of decisions, the Commissioner found entirely in favour of the applicant and 35 per cent partially in favour.
A total of ten authorities or applicants appealed the Commissioner?s decision to the Court of Session on a point of law, although two withdrew and the Commissioner chose not to defend another. The first such Court ruling was issued in December 2006, coincidentally involving the first-ever appeal to the Commissioner. The Court upheld the Commissioner?s view that information on the incidence of childhood leukaemia in Dumfries and Galloway could be provided in a form which would not risk patient identification and that was reasonable to require the Common Services Agency of the NHS to do so.
Improved ways of working
Concerns have been raised on the impact that requests for information are having on public resources. To ease the process, over 30,000 copies of the ?Your Right to Know? guide have been issued to public organisations and members of the public, and applicants have been given guidance on how to request information to assist public authorities in locating the information.
The Scottish Information Commissioner?s website, www.itspublicknowledge.info, will be re-launched shortly, to include a response calculator for applicants to work out the time it should take before requesting a review or making an application to the Information Commissioner ? which will help reduce the number of invalid appeals.
For public authorities, the decision database will be more searchable so that relevant decisions can be referred to and the Commissioner?s guidance on exemptions will also be updated.
Kevin Dunion said, "The freedom of information regime is only two years old and we can be satisfied at the use being made of it and the general level of compliance in Scotland. We need to remember that the avowed intent when it was brought in by the Scottish Parliament was to promote a new culture of openness in place of an old culture of secrecy.
"The immediate task of successfully implementing the Freedom of Information Act has now been met ? now the real challenge of converting from compliance to culture change is underway."
For further information contact Claire Sigsworth or Paul Mutch on 01334 464610, out of hours, 07976 511752
Notes to Editors:
Find a link to the Annual Report through the following web page: Annual reports of the Scottish Information Commissioner
Individual examples of cases and decisions can also be accessed on this website.
For further information, please contact Carolynne Coole or Will Holt at Consolidated Communications on 0131 240 6421/2 or email Scotland@consol.co.uk.