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Friday 28th September 2007

Scotland rises to the challenge of freedom of information?but more can be done

Research published today (28 September 2007) - the 5th annual International Right to Know Day -suggests that, while Scottish public authorities are complying with the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act on a practical level, there is evidence to suggest that some authorities have developed practices to 'manage' the release of sensitive information. The report, "The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002: New Modes of Information Management in Scottish Public Bodies?" was commissioned by the Scottish Information Commissioner and prepared by researchers from the University of St Andrews and the Caledonian Business School.

The report found that:

  • 89% of authorities reported that their organisations were now more transparent as a direct result of the legislation.
  • 74% stated that records management has improved as a consequence of the Act.
  • A minority of authorities reported that the 20 working day response timescales in the Act had caused difficulties, with 30% stating that they had experienced problems in meeting these timescales. A further 25% also took the view that perceived "abuses" of the Act were an issue, with the use of the Act by journalists singled out by several authorities as a cause for concern.
  • There was evidence of authorities developing practices to 'manage' the release of sensitive information, with one authority reporting that it had used the FOI response timescale to delay the release of such information.

Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, said:

"I commissioned this research to get an independent insight into how public authorities were responding to freedom of information laws. I am pleased that it shows authorities are working hard to meet their obligations. However, it also reveals that we need to open up debate about how we fully meet the stated aim of moving from a culture of secrecy to one of openness. Issues such as what records are created and maintained and the extent to which these are made public still need to be addressed."

The research concludes that strong leadership within authorities is vital if the spirit, as well as the letter, of the FOI Act is to be adhered to, and that authorities should do more to share best practice on FOI matters. The research also calls for the Scottish Information Commissioner to assist authorities further by more effectively distributing information to authorities on FOI learning points.

The Commissioner added:

"I welcome the recommendations for my Office which have emerged from this report, and I am pleased to note that they reflect my own plans for the improved communication of information to public authorities."

Dr Eleanor Burt, from the University of St Andrews, said:

"For FOI to make its greatest contribution to democratic government in Scotland, our research suggests that public bodies must embrace it as being at the heart of what they do, rather than as an adjunct to their service providing role."

Professor John Taylor, from the Caledonian Business School added:

"Our research findings raise the vital question of whether Scottish public bodies are able to realise the administrative, organisational and democratic gains that they can derive from improving citizens' access to information."

The full report is available from the Scottish Information Commissioner's website, www.itspublicknowledge.info, from today (28 September 2007).

Ends

The full research report can be accessed by clicking on the link below.

Research Report 28 September 2007 (PDF - 560KB)

Notes to Editors

The Research Study

  • The research was conducted by Dr Eleanor Burt, University of St Andrews, and Professor John Taylor, Caledonian Business School.
  • The aim of the research was to examine the extent to which, and how, the FOI Act has impacted upon information management arrangements in Scottish public bodies.
  • Representatives of four sectors which are subject to the FOI Act were surveyed ? the Scottish Executive (as was), local authorities, NHS boards and the police.
  • The research took the form of a telephone survey which was supported by six in-depth case studies.
  • 53 Scottish public bodies participated in the research.

International Right to Know Day

  • International Right to Know Day is celebrated on 28 September each year.
  • The inaugural Right to Know Day took place on 28 September 2002, following a meeting of FOI advocates in Bulgaria.
  • The aim of Right to Know Day is to promote the right of access to information and open, transparent governance.
  • In 2006, over forty countries around the world celebrated International Right to Know Day.

The FOI Act

  • 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 require release.
  • The parties to any case have the right to appeal against the Commissioner's decision to the Court of Session on a point of law only.

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.

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