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1000th FOI Decision requires release of government meeting data

News Release: 30 July 2010

Freedom of information in Scotland reaches a new landmark today [Friday 30 July] as the Scottish Information Commissioner publishes his 1000th decision, ordering the Scottish Government to release information about the meetings of its Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), and to carry out further searches for relevant information.

The decision deals with a request made by a journalist from a Scottish national newspaper, for information about the costs and administrative arrangements for the first five meetings of the CEA - the group of economists and industry figures that advises the Scottish Government on economic affairs.

In his ruling, the Commissioner finds that the Government failed to put forward an appropriate justification for the non-disclosure of data, while also failing to confirm to him that officials had appropriately searched for all relevant information.

Publishing his decision, Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, said:

"I have now issued a substantial body of rulings in the five and a half years since Scotland's freedom of information laws came into force. This 1000th case is not untypical. Around two thirds of my decisions find in favour, or partially in favour, of the applicant.

"By now, all public authorities should be fully aware of their duties when responding to FOI requests. They should understand the need to present clear arguments when they decide to withhold information and those arguments should stand up to scrutiny in the event of an appeal. Where, as in this case, a public authority fails to make an appropriate case, I will order the release of information. With all this experience behind us, I expect authorities to get their responses - to FOI requesters and to me - right first time."

The Commissioner requires the Government to release the withheld information by 6 September 2010.

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:

About the decision:

  • The decision relates to five separate information requests, made by a journalist, for information relating to the staging and catering of the first five meetings of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). The Scottish Ministers advised the requester that some information was available from its website, while other information was exempt under the FOI exemption that protects information where release will harm the effective conduct of public affairs.
  • The Commissioner found that the Ministers had been correct to conclude that some information was available through its website, and could therefore be accessed by the requester through alternate means. He also found, however, that the Ministers failed to make an appropriate case for the non-disclosure of the remainder of the information falling within the scope of the requests, despite having been invited to do so. The Commissioner therefore ordered the disclosure of this information.
  • He also found that the Ministers failed to satisfy him that the searches carried out for relevant information were appropriate, and required further searches to be carried out.
  • The full text of the Commissioner's decision will be available on his website (Scottish Information Commissioner decisions) on 30 July 2010. Advanced embargoed copies of the decision are available by contacting the Commissioner's media team on 01334 464610, or emailing media@itspublicknowledge.info.

Extension of FOI:

  • The 1000th decision follows the Scottish Government's launch of a consultation on extending FOI to cover a range of additional bodies. The consultation was launched on Wednesday 28 July and will run until 2 November 2010.
  • The consultation seeks views on whether a range of organisations should be brought within the scope of Scotland's FOI laws. These include:
    • contractors who run privately managed prisons and provide prison escort services;
    • contractors who build and maintain schools;
    • contractors who build and maintain hospitals;
    • leisure, sport and cultural trusts and bodies established or created by local authorities;
    • the Glasgow Housing Association;
    • the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPOS);
    • contractors who build, manage and maintain trunk roads under private finance contracts.

Media Resources:

  • A range of resources for the media are available at the 'Resources for media' pages on the website.  These include downloadable hi-resolution photographs and logos, as well as background briefings and guidance on how to use FOI effectively.

About the freedom of information legislation:

  • The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (which came into force on 1st January 2005) provides individuals and organisations with a right to receive the 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. Information can be withheld, for example, where its release would breach someone's right to privacy under data protection legislation, or where it would harm national security or an organisation's commercial interests. Even where an exemption applies, however, in many cases the Act also says that information must be released if it is in the public interest to do so.
  • There is a three-step process to requesting information. This works as follows:
    • Step 1 ? the request stage ? an individual writes to an authority to request information. In most cases, the information will be provided first time, and there will be no need to move on to the later stages. Where information is refused, however, the FOI Act requires that the authority inform the requester of his/her rights of appeal in relation to the decision.
    • Step 2 ? the review stage ? the first stage of this right of appeal is to write to the authority asking it to review its handling of the original request. The authority has a further 20 working days to reconsider the request and respond.  If it continues to withhold the information, it must notify the requester of his/her right to appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner
    • Step 3 ? the application stage ? an individual can appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner. On receipt of an appeal application, the Commissioner will conduct a full investigation into the public authority's handling of the request. If he finds that the authority has withheld information incorrectly, he can force the authority to release it. He may also uphold the authority's decision to withhold information.

About the Scottish Information Commissioner:

  • Kevin Dunion was appointed as the first Scottish Information Commissioner in February 2003. In February 2008 he was reappointed for a second, and final term, for four years until 2012.
  • He is also Co-Director of the Centre for Freedom of Information, a joint venture with the Dundee University School of Law.

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