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Image of the Annual Report 2009 showing the text 'You only have to ask'Commissioner challenges public authorities to 'think FOI'

News release: 8 March 2010

The Scottish Information Commissioner today [8 March 2010] told Scotland's public authorities that they must "think FOI" if they are to minimise the impact of freedom of information requests. The call coincides with data, published in the Commissioner's 2009 Annual Report, which shows that the number of FOI appeals made to the Commissioner increased by 15% over the last year, and that two-thirds of the decisions he issued found that a public authority had breached FOI law in some way.

Marking the launch of his 2009 Annual Report, Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, said:

"2009 saw a significant increase in the number of appeals I received. The effect of the recession on public spending may well mean even more requests for information being made by people concerned about public authority decisions which affect services, funding or jobs.

"It is therefore essential that public authorities take steps to make sure they can more readily comply with FOI, giving people the information they want, while minimising the impact on public authority resources. Key to this is assuming information will be released. When staff create information, they should be aware that their reports, emails and notes may one day be released under FOI. All too often, a public authority's reluctance to disclose is less about the actual content of the information, and more about the manner in which staff have expressed themselves. By encouraging staff at all levels to "think FOI", public authorities can encourage a more professional approach to internal, as well as external, communications ? making it far easier to contemplate release."

Alongside the 15% increase in applications, the Commissioner's Annual Report also reveals that:

  • 73% of the applications received by the Commissioner in 2009 came from members of the public;
  • the Commissioner found that a public authority had breached the law in some way in two thirds of the appeals that were made to him;
  • the average age of cases being dealt with by the Commissioner continued to decline during 2009, meaning that individual applications are being resolved more quickly. The average age of cases closed during 2009 was 5.3 months, down from 6.7 months in 2008 and 10 months in 2007;
  • enquiries to the Commissioner's Office from people seeking advice on using FOI also increased significantly, with a 16% increase on 2008 volumes.

The 2009 Report, which also celebrates the first five years of FOI in Scotland, is being presented electronically for the first time through an interactive website. Additional features in the report include video commentary, interactive tables, user stories, and detailed chronologies charting the development of FOI in Scotland over its first five years.

The full report can be viewed online at www.itspublicknowledge.info/ask

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 Annual Report:

The 2009 Annual Report is the Scottish Information Commissioner's sixth annual report.The report will be available to the public from Monday 8th March at www.itspublicknowledge.info/ask

In addition to providing information on the progress of FOI in Scotland and the performance of the Commissioner during 2009, the report also marks the 5th Anniversary of the FOI legislation in Scotland.The legislation came into force on 1 January 2005.

The report carries the title "You Only Have to Ask ? Five Years, Five Simple Words". This title emphasises the fact that, thanks to FOI, if someone wants to access information from a Scottish public authority, they now have a right to receive it ? they only have to ask.

The report is being presented electronically for the first time.Additional features available as a result of this electronic presentation include:

  • Video commentary on the progress made during 2009 from Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner.
  • Interactive timelines tracking the progress and development of FOI in Scotland over its first five years.
  • Video footage of an everyday user of Scotland's FOI legislation ? Sandy Longmuir from the Scottish Rural Schools Network ? talking about the role that FOI has played in the Network's campaign to prevent the closure of rural schools across Scotland.
  • Interactive tables allowing users to view the outcomes of applications to the Commissioner for individual authorities since 2005. This information is available to view by either sector (police, health, local authority, etc) or region, for the first time. Also, users will have the option of downloading the spreadsheets showing public authority performance, allowing them to explore, manipulate and analyse the public authority data themselves.

The report also contains details of a number of the cases considered by the Commissioner during 2009.These include:

  • The disability charity ECAS who used FOI to access information on the City of Edinburgh Council's decision to reduce funding to the Edinburgh Disability Equality Forum.
  • A request for the financial model from the PFI Contract for Kilmarnock Prison, where the Commissioner required release.
  • A 17-year-old's request for information relating to Scottish Borders Council's policy on charging for food preparation for the elderly.
  • A request for details of the payments made to confidential informants.The Commissioner required the release of some, but not all, of this information.

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.

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, establishing two research projects into the performance of public bodies in Scotland with regards to providing access to information, and giving evidence to the Justice Committee as it scrutinised the passage of the FOI Bill through the Scottish Parliament.

Kevin is Co-Director of the Centre for Freedom of Information, a joint venture with the Dundee School of Law. He is also Rector of the University of St Andrews.

 

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