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Commissioner concerned over voluntary sector FOI use

News release: 11 March 2010

The Scottish Information Commissioner has spoken of his concern that the third sector in Scotland is not making effective use of Scotland's freedom of information (FOI) laws, following the publication of new figures which suggest that the use of FOI by the sector may be declining. The Commissioner was speaking following the publication of his 2009 Annual Report, which reveals that the proportion of FOI appeals made to the Commissioner from the voluntary sector had fallen to its lowest level, down to 2% from 7% in 2008.

Requesters can bring an appeal to the Commissioner if they are unhappy with the way in which a public authority responds to an information request. Speaking at the launch of his 2009 Annual Report, Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, said:

"The proportion of appeals to me from the voluntary sector was lower in 2009 than at any other time since the FOI Act came into force, and I intend to explore ? and will work to address ? the reasons for this. Recent research carried out by the University of Strathclyde has suggested two possible factors that may be playing a part.

"Firstly, voluntary sector respondents told researchers that public authorities were failing to inform them of their right of appeal - despite there being a statutory obligation to do so. If people are not being made aware of their appeal rights when requesting information, then this will clearly impact on appeal levels. Throughout 2010 I will be working to ensure that public authorities are meeting their obligations through my programme of public authority assessments.

"Secondly, and more worryingly, the study also found that almost half of voluntary sector respondents would be discouraged from requesting information under FOI because of a fear that it may harm working or funding relations. The University of Strathclyde's ongoing research will examine this finding further, and I will address any issues as they arise. No-one should fear the consequences of making an FOI request.

"We know that FOI can be a valuable tool for the sector ? the University's study found that almost 70% of those who had made an FOI request received everything they sought, first time - and my annual report contains a number of examples where voluntary sector organisations have made effective use of FOI as part of their policy or campaigning work.

"The 'right to information' provided by FOI can be of benefit to all, and I will be working to ensure that any barriers to the third sector's use of the FOI right can be challenged and removed."

Examples of FOI-use by campaigners and the voluntary sector from the Commissioner's 2009 Annual Report include:

  • The Scottish Rural Schools Network, who used information released in response to an FOI request to successfully lobby Parliament for the strengthening of the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act;
  • 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;
  • The Rarer Cancers Forum, who discovered through FOI that twice as many patients in Scotland have to appeal to the NHS's 'Exceptional Cases Committee' for treatment than in England;
  • Disability charity Inclusion Scotland, who are using information gathered through FOI to work collaboratively with local authorities to help improve housing services for people with disabilities.

The Commissioner's 2009 Report 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 Research:

  • The research report 'Volunteering Information? The use of Freedom of Information laws by the Third Sector in Scotland', was published on 4th January 2010 as part of a three-year research study to explore the extent to which campaign groups and voluntary organisations in Scotland and the UK are making use of the FOI legislation.
  • The full research study, entitled 'Public Communication, Democracy and Citizenship: Assessing Civil Society Uptake of Freedom of Information' is due to be published in 2011. The 'Volunteering Information?' report brings together the first-phase quantitative findings from this study.
  • The research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and is supported by the Scottish Information Commissioner. It is being undertaken by Kate Spence, a doctoral researcher from the University of Strathclyde.
  • Other findings of the research study include:
    • 78% of voluntary sector respondents reported that they were aware of FOI.
    • Only 44% of respondents were confident they would receive the information they asked for if they made an FOI request.
    • 51% of respondents stated that they had made an information request.
    • 67% of those who had made a request received all the information they sought, first time.
    • 28% of respondents disagreed that public authorities treat all FOI requests equally, regardless of who is requesting the information.
    • 49% of respondents stated that they would be discouraged from requesting information because of a fear that it might harm working or funding relationships.
    • 55% of those who had a request refused reported that they were not told of their right to appeal the decision, despite there being a statutory obligation to do so.
    • 26% of respondents who did appeal, however, report that they were not told of their subsequent right of appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner.
    • 84% of the organisations that responded were funded, either wholly or in part, by public authorities.
  • The research report available to download from the Scottish Information Commissioner's website at .

About the Annual Report:

  • The 2009 Annual Report is the Scottish Information Commissioner's sixth annual report. The report is available 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.
  • A print version of the report can be downloaded from the website, or a copy of the downloaded report can be requests from the Commissioner's Office, for those without web access.

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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