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Commissioner calls on Scottish public sector leaders to push the boundaries of openness

Press release: 9 March 2009

Launching his Fifth Annual Report[1] today, Scottish Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion applauded the intention of Scotland's Chief Constables to proactively publish their expenses, at a time when the subject of trust in government and public officials is rarely out of the news.

The majority of Scotland's police forces have already signed up to a 'model publication scheme'[2] which includes detailed expenses for Chief Constables and Assistant Chief Constables. The new schemes will go live in June 2009.

Kevin Dunion believes there is a real need for public trust to be restored, and he calls for a new model of leadership in Scotland, where all our public leaders expect to be held to account.

Mr Dunion says "Public trust is greater when people can see for themselves that public officials are doing a good job. This decision by Scotland's chief constables is a positive example of public sector leaders recognising the public interest in this kind of information. Leaders should see it as a matter of right, not offence, when they are asked for information. We need to see more such examples ? and not just in relation to expenses."

The Commissioner's Annual Report for 2008 reviews the performance of his office during 2008 and sets out the strategic direction for his second and final term of office. Since 2005, Mr Dunion has dealt with nearly 2,000 applications which have required over 750 formal decisions. At the end of 2008, the average age of cases closed during the year was 6.7 months, compared with 10 months a year earlier. Only 10% of cases were over 12 months old at the end of 2008, compared to 29% at the end of 2006.

Looking forward, the Commissioner's two main priorities are to ensure public authorities get compliance right first time, and to continue to press for safeguards to the public's right to information. During 2009, 10 public authorities will be audited for compliance with the Act, and the Commissioner will continue to pursue dialogue with the Scottish Government on designating a list of new bodies under the Act.

Mr Dunion says "I will be working with individual public authorities to help them improve their compliance, because good practice is the very foundation of positive cultural change. However, this is not the only critical FOI issue in Scotland today. My desire to see the scope of the Act extended is a matter of public record, and I have recently recommended[3] to the Scottish Government that they should designate housing associations, leisure trusts and contractors delivering high-value public service contracts."

A full breakdown of the report with case studies is available at the Annual Report section of this website.

 

Notes to editors

The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 came into force on 1 January 2005. In the first 4 years of operation, the Commissioner received 1,941 applications and issued 768 decisions.

[1] Highlights of the 2008 Annual report include:

  • In 2008, the Commissioner dealt with 550 applications and closed 174 cases with decision. 127 cases were closed without investigation, 121 were withdrawn or settled.
  • A greater number of cases under investigation are being settled or withdrawn, (33% during 2008 compared to 32% in 2007) as staff are increasingly working with applicants and authorities to broker mutually satisfactory outcomes without the need for formal decision.
  • The number of open cases (i.e. under investigation) fell from 180 at the end of 2007, to 128 at the end of 2008.
  • The average age of cases closed during the year came down from 10 months at the end of 2007, to 6.7 months at the end of 2008.
  • By the end of 2008, only 10% of cases had been under investigation for over 12 months ? compared to 29% at the end of 2007.
  • Public awareness of the FOI Act increased again to an all time high of 78%.
  • Public awareness of the Scottish Information Commissioner also increased from 14% in 2007 to 21% in 2008.
  • The Commissioner Strategic plan for 2008-2012 has six key themes:
    • Case closure ?reducing time taken to close cases;
    • Compliance ? promoting good practice in the public sector;
    • Development ? engaging in dialogue about changes to legislation and policy;
    • Practice ? working with partners to advance research and knowledge of FOI;
    • Awareness ? widen awareness, especially amongst specific demographic groups;
    • Reference ? capturing and sharing experience when the Commissioner leaves office.

[2] About Chief Constable's expenses:

  • The Act requires all public authorities to produce a publication scheme which specifies the information which the authority publishes/intends to publish, and to make information available in line with the scheme.
  • A model publication scheme is a common scheme which is adopted, without modification, by a group of similar public authorities.
  • The 'Model Publication Scheme for a Chief Constable of a Police Force in Scotland' was approved in February 2009, and most of Scotland's forces have already signed up to it. It will replace their current schemes from 1 June 2009.
  • The model scheme commits those who have signed up to it, to proactively publish Senior Officer expenses for Chief Constables, Deputy Chief Constables and Assistant Chief Constables. This is to include total amount spent (including amounts reclaimed and amounts spent using a corporate credit card).
  • A quarterly total of individual expenditure will be provided broken down into total costs of travel, accommodation, food & drink, hospitality and conference/event attendance fees.
  • The model scheme can be viewed on the Commissioner's website .

[3] The Commissioner's views on extending the Act:

In October 2007, the Commissioner called for the Scottish Government to consider extending the Act to address concerns about loss of FOI rights. In November 2008, Ministers issued a discussion paper calling for views on the extension for the Act to cover housing associations, local authority trusts and private contractors delivering public services. The Commissioner's response to this exercise is available on his website here.

The key points are:

  • It was the intent of Parliament that section 5 of the FOI Act (which gives Ministers the power to extend the Act to bodies where they appear to be exercising public functions) could and would be actively used.
  • What constitutes a 'public function' for the purposes of the Act is not legally defined, but is a matter of judgement for Ministers to make.
  • Loss or inequality of rights to information is a key factor when considering whether designation is appropriate.
  • Public opinion in Scotland favours extension of the Act.
  • All services which are integral to the delivery of a public service should be considered for designation e.g. hospital cleaning.
  • Existing regulators and contracting public authorities may not hold the information that the public wants to see.
  • The burden of coverage by the Act should not be overstated ? little detailed evidence currently exists.
  • Designation should be an ongoing process, not a one-off event.

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