The Scottish Information Commissioner - It's Public Knowledge
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Image Kevin Dunion standing under a crossroads sign pointing to refuse/release/openness/secrecy Freedom of information requests increase, but information is more likely to be disclosed

Research carried out by the Scottish Information Commissioner to coincide with the publication today (8 March 2011) of his 2010 Annual Report, indicates that, while freedom of information (FOI) requests to Scottish public authorities are on the increase, authorities are also becoming more likely to disclose information in response to requests, rather than withhold it.

A survey of FOI officers across Scotland found that over two thirds reported a rise in FOI requests over the past year. The survey also found, however, that 48% felt that their organisation had become more inclined towards disclosure, with only 2% reporting that they had become less inclined to release information in response to requests.

The survey findings are supported by the data published today in the Commissioner's 2010 Annual Report. The report reveals that, while enquiries to the Commissioner about using FOI have grown by 12% over the year - and by 38% since 2007 - the number of appeals, where the Commissioner is asked to investigate following the refusal of an information request, have remained steady, with a small 3% drop over the last 12 months.

Launching his 2010 annual report, Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner said:

"It is clear from the data published today that the public are increasingly making use of their rights to information. This is sure to continue in the current economic climate, as more and more people want to understand the rationale behind spending cuts.

"When public authorities receive information requests they are often faced with a choice between disclosing the information, or refusing to release it. It may well be that the refusal of the request is appropriate, for example where it involves personal data. However, as my decisions over the past year have shown, there are still many cases where authorities have not been justified in withholding information, even where the information might expose them to criticism or adverse publicity.

"The good news, however, is that our survey results suggest that public authorities are becoming more comfortable with disclosing information, rather than withholding it, and these conclusions appear to be supported by the levelling-off of appeals coming to my Office. This is a positive sign, and evidence that freedom of information is now beginning to "bed in" in Scotland, with the FOI principles of openness and transparency increasingly being accepted by authorities.

"The bad news, though, is a widespread concern amongst authorities that a rise in often complex requests comes at a time when there is a reduction in the resources available to deal with them. Indeed, 41% of respondents to our survey identified this as the biggest FOI challenge they faced."

The Commissioner continued:

"Scotland has led the way in the UK since the introduction of FOI six years ago, and the Scottish Government has demonstrated its commitment to FOI by removing exemptions that prevent the release of sensitive information after 15 years. However, the decision not to bring additional bodies, like Kilmarnock Prison or Glasgow Housing Association, under the scope of FOI in this parliament was a significant setback. Increasingly, public services are delivered by arms length organisations and private contractors, it is therefore extremely important that FOI rights continue to follow the public pound.

"FOI in Scotland is at a crossroads, and now is not the time to diminish people's rights. The public must be able to access information on how the decisions that affect public services and public spending are taken."

The Commissioner's Annual Report also reveals that:

  • 408 FOI appeals were received by the Commissioner in 2010, following the refusal of information requests by Scottish public authorities;
  • The Commissioner closed 456 cases;
  • 249 formal decisions were issued, 50% more than in 2009;
  • The Commissioner issued his 1000th decision since the introduction of FOI in 2005.1,188 decisions had been issued by the end of the year;
  • 74% of the applications were received by the Commissioner in 2010 came from members of the public;
  • The number of cases closed without investigation continued to decline over the year, with a drop of 16% on 2009 figures. This suggests that there is an increasing awareness amongst requesters of the FOI appeal process;
  • The Commissioner found that a public authority had breached the law in some way in 65% of the decisions issued;
  • The average age of cases being dealt with by the Commissioner continued to decline during 2010, meaning that individual applications are being resolved more quickly. The average age of cases closed during 2010 was 5.2 months.

The 2010 report is being presented through an interactive website which includes video commentary, user stories and interactive tables. The report highlights are also being presented in an 'infographic' format for the first time - a short animation of that provides a highly accessible and user-friendly route to information about how to use FOI, and the role of the Commissioner.

The interactive online report and infographic are available at www.itspublicknowledge.info/yourhands.

 

Ends

Notes to Editors:

About the Annual Report:

  • The 2010 Annual Report is the Scottish Information Commissioner's seventh annual report. The report will be available to the public from Tuesday 8th March at www.itspublicknowledge.info/yourhands
  • It carries the title 'Information ? It's In Your Hands'. This title carries a message for both members of the public and Scottish public authorities:
    • For the public, it emphasises the rights that they have to access information under freedom of information and that, if there is information they would like 'in their hands' - all they have to do is request it.
    • For public authorities, it stresses the responsibilities that they have in relation to the information they hold, and their duty to respond to the FOI requests they receive appropriately and efficiently.
  • The report is being presented electronically via an online website for the second year running, in order to ensure that the information it contains is as accessible as possible throughout 2011. Additional features available as a result of this electronic presentation include:
    • Video commentary on the milestones and challenges of 2010 from Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner.
    • An 'Infographic' presentation - a short animated feature providing viewers with both information about what the FOI right is, and how to use it, along with information on the role and performance of the Scottish Information Commissioner during 2010.
    • Video 'case studies' featuring two everyday user of Scotland's FOI legislation - Ian Hood, from the Learning Disability Alliance Scotland, who has used FOI to draw attention to the plight of people with learning disabilities who are being inappropriately housed in care homes for the elderly, and Stewart Maclean, a member of the A82 Partnership, who are campaigning for an upgrade of the main road connecting the West Highlands of Scotland to the central belt.
    • 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. 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 case studies of cases considered by the Commissioner during 2010. These focus on a range of experiences, including cases involving the media, those that were deemed to be 'vexatious' by Scottish public authorities, and the conclusion during 2010 of a number of complex and long-running appeals.

About the survey:

  • The Commissioner undertook a short online survey of public authority FOI staff in February 2011, in order to gather data on their experience of handling FOI requests over the past year. A report on the findings of the survey is due to be published later in March.
  • The survey was sent to 347 individual public authority contacts, drawn from contact lists maintained by the Scottish Information Commissioner.175 respondents completed the survey, representing a 50% response rate.
  • Initial findings from the survey which are highlighted in this news release included:
    • 73% of public authority respondents reported that FOI requests had increased in the last year, with 38% stating that they had increased 'significantly'. Only 6% of respondents reported that requests had decreased, with 21% reporting that they had stayed the same.
    • Despite the reported increase in request volumes, there was not a similar increase in 'requests for review'.These are made when a requester is unhappy with a public authority's response. 15% reported a decrease in request for review, and 50% of respondents reported that, over the last year, the number of requests for review they received had stayed the same. While 30% of respondents reported that requests for review had increased, only 6% reported that they had increased significantly. This finding, when considered alongside the increase in request volumes, supports the conclusion that more public authorities are getting their FOI response 'right first time'.
    • 48% stated that their organisation had become more included towards disclosure, with 19% becoming strongly more inclined, while 50% stated that they were neither more nor less inclined towards disclosure. Comments suggest that those who were neither more nor less inclined towards disclosure, took that position because they were generally inclined towards disclosure from the outset.
  • A full report on the findings of the survey will be published later in March.

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.
  • During 2010 the Scottish Government undertook a consultation on extending the FOI Act to cover a range of additional bodies that provide important public services, including the Glasgow Housing Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, private prisons, leisure trusts and PFI/PPP contractors. In January 2011, however, the Government announced that it would not be taking designation forward at this time. The Government's announcement on this matter is available at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2011/01/26154714.

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 has now entered his final year as Commissioner.
  • 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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