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Survey finds public confused over information rights

Crowd of PeopleNews Release: 23 November 2009

Research published today by the Scottish Information Commissioner has revealed that, while the Scottish public's general awareness of freedom of information (FOI) remains high, their understanding of what the FOI right means in practice has decreased significantly. The research, which was conducted on behalf of the Commissioner by Progressive Scottish Opinion, reveals that while a general awareness of FOI stands at 76%, those understanding that FOI provides a legal right to access any information from public authorities, subject to certain exemptions, has dropped to 39% in 2009 (from 49% in 2008).

Commenting on the findings, the Scottish Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion said:

"It is surprising that understanding of freedom of information legislation has decreased.  There have been many examples reported in the media of people and organisations using freedom of information legislation to access information, most recently in relation to MPs' expenses, and from this coverage we might expect understanding of FOI rights to be increasing.  The finding of this research highlights the importance for Scottish public authorities, when responding to requests, to inform people of their FOI rights, and more generally to include clear information about FOI on their websites.

"With this in mind I have instituted a programme of Practice Assessments to ensure that Scottish public authorities are following good practice in terms of FOI."

The Scottish Information Commissioner has now conducted assessments of 7 Scottish public authorities, and will assess a further 7 authorities over the remainder of 2009-2010.  In general so far the Commissioner has been encouraged by the level of good practice being followed, and authorities are co-operating on voluntary action plans to remedy any deficiencies identified by the assessment.  In addition the Commissioner has issued 135 decisions on specific appeals in the past year.

Ends

For further information, contact the Commissioner's Media Team on 01334 464610, out of hours on 07976 511752, or email media@itspublicknowledge.info

Notes to Editors:

The Research Report

The research was conducted on behalf of the Scottish Information Commissioner by Progressive Scottish Opinion who interviewed a random sample of adults aged 18 years and over across Scotland between 7 and 14 October 2009.  This research is the 7th wave of an ongoing annual research study which has run since 2004, with each wave aiming to complete a target of 1,000 interviews.  In this, the 7th wave, a representative sample of 1,020 respondents were interviewed. 

The full research report was published on 23 November 2009, and is available here.

Other findings of the research included:

  • The public's relatively high awareness of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) has remained high.  76% of the Scottish population has at least some degree of awareness of FOISA.  This is a 32% increase since the tracking research began in 2004.
  • Numbers of people making written requests to access information from public authorities remains unchanged from 2008 at 9%.
  • There is a significant difference across gender with males being twice as likely as females to have made a request to access information (12% males, 6% females).
  • Uncertainty over FOI rights is highest amongst over 65 year olds, and overall awareness of FOISA is much lower amongst the disabled population at 64% compared to 78%.
  • Accurate understanding of the legal right when accessing information has decreased significantly.  Despite increasing since 2006, those understanding that they have the legal right to access any information they ask for, subject to certain exemptions, has dropped to 39% in 2009 (from 49% in 2008).  There is continued confusion between the right to access general information held by public authorities under the freedom of information legislation, and people's right to access their own personal data under the Data Protection Act.  The number of people believing they have no legal right has remained relatively low at 4%.
  • The 2009 study reinforces the findings of the 2008 awareness research that the public remain committed to the extension of FOI. As in 2008, the 2009 study finds at least two thirds of the Scottish population favour extending Scotland's FOI laws to cover bodies such as housing associations, leisure trusts, PPP/PFI projects and private prisons.  The highest level of agreement is for private sector organisations that build and maintain NHS hospitals to be covered by freedom of information (81% agreeing they should be covered).  Lowest levels of agreement are for Scottish private prisons to be covered.

About Practice Assessments

The Commissioner is undertaking a programme of Practice Assessments to ensure that Scottish public authorities are following good practice in terms of FOISA.  These practice assessments are conducted in accordance with the Commissioner's Enforcement Strategy.

The public authorities assessed so far include:

  • Transport Initiatives Edinburgh Ltd (tie) ? assessment Report published
  • Queen Margaret University - assessment Report published.
  • Northern Constabulary - assessment Report published
  • University of Glasgow - assessment Report not yet published
  • Lothian and Borders Fire Board - assessment Report not yet published
  • Perth and Kinross Council - assessment Report not yet published
  • Stevenson College, Edinburgh - assessment Report not yet published

Reports from on-site assessments of public authority practice carried out to date are available on the  pages of the website.

Assessment of an authority will not just look at the circumstances relating to an individual case, but will go beyond and look at practice and compliance by the authority based on a wider set of evidence.  Patterns of persistent failure may include e.g.

  • failure to recognise FOI requests;
  • failure to respond to requests within the required timescale;
  • inadequate information provided to applicants as to their rights;
  • inadequate searches for information held;
  • improper calculation of the costs of responding to requests.

About Freedom of Information

The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 provides individuals and organisations with a right to receive information held by over 10,000 public authorities in Scotland.  The Act applies to the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government and the NHS in Scotland, as well as all of Scotland's police forces, local authorities and universities.

Under FOI any written request for information must be responded to within 20 working days.  Information can only be withheld where the FOI Act expressly permits it.

If information is withheld, there is a right of appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner.  The Commissioner can require the release of information if an authority has acted incorrectly.

Similar legislation covers public authorities operating in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

About the Scottish Information Commissioner

Kevin Dunion was appointed as the first Scottish Information Commissioner in February 2003.  He was appointed for a second, and final term, for four years until 2012.

Kevin previously worked with Oxfam Scotland as Campaign Manager, and was Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland.  From 1996 to 2000 he also served as Chairman of Friends of the Earth International.  Prior to his appointment as Scottish Information Commissioner he was for many years a prominent campaigner for freedom of information.

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