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Commissioner calls for public's right to information to be protected when public services are privatised

Scottish Information Commissioner giving a speechNews Release: 25 October 2007

The Scottish Information Commissioner will today (25 October 2007) call for the Scottish Government to protect the freedom of information rights of people, which are being lost when public services are operated by private or charitable bodies. He will make his call in a keynote address to the 5th Annual Freedom of Information Conference in Edinburgh, which will also be addressed by Bruce Crawford, the Scottish Government Minister responsible for freedom of information. (1)

Kevin Dunion, the Commissioner, will say

"When council housing is transferred to a housing association or when a charitable trust is established to run local authority leisure and recreation services, local people and employees may find that they have lost freedom of information rights at a stroke, as these bodies are not regarded as public authorities." (2)

The Commissioner will also express concern that information on millions of pounds of public spending on health and education under PFI/PPP contracts is also difficult to access. He will say

"One of the key purposes of the freedom of information legislation was to allow authorities to be held to account publicly for their spending. However in recent investigations I have found that contracts to build schools and hospitals can run to thousands of pages, and that authorities are able to withhold these on the grounds of cost or attempt to argue that the whole contract is confidential." (3)

He will conclude

"I think it is important that we review which bodies are covered by the freedom of information laws, and in addition take steps to ensure that information rights 'follow the money', where significant sums of public spending are concerned. Measures can be taken to ensure that the new trusts are publicly owned, (4) and there could be a requirement to publish PPP contracts subject to safeguarding genuinely confidential elements."

Ends

For further information contact Sue Gemmell or Paul Mutch on 01334 464610, or out of hours on 07976 511752.

Notes to Editors

(1)The Scottish Information Commissioner will be speaking at the 5th Annual Freedom of Information Conference at the Grosvenor Hotel Edinburgh on Thursday 25 October. Other speakers include the Minister for Parliamentary Business, Bruce Crawford; Maurice Frankel, Campaign for FOI, David Goldberg, Campaign for FOI Scotland, and Rob Evans, the Guardian.

(2)The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 covers 10,000 public bodies ranging form the Scottish Parliament to individual GPs. However it does not include any housing associations, such as the Glasgow Housing Association. Trusts set up to run Councils' services may not be established as wholly owned public companies and so are also outside the scope of the Act.

(3)Edinburgh City Council was able to withhold details of its PFI/PPP contracts for schools in Edinburgh on the grounds that it would exceed the ?600 threshold beyond which authorities need not provide information. ( Decision 152/2007 Mr Andrew Picken  Lothian NHS Board attempted to withhold all of its Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh contract with Consort Services (which exceeded 8000 pages) on the grounds of confidentiality. The Commissioner this week however has ordered the contract to be provided to the applicant. (Decision 190/2007Ms May Docherty and Lothian NHS Board.)

(4)Glasgow City Council has ensured that its new charitable company Culture and Sport Glasgow which is responsible for arts and museums library and sports is a wholly owned public company and remains subject to the Freedom of Information Act . By contrast North Ayrshire Leisure is not wholly owned and is not subject to the Act.

Freedom of Information Legislation

  • 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.
  • 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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