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Annual Report 201415 Cover ImageCommissioner warns: use the right legislation

25 September 2015

The Scottish Information Commissioner has called on public bodies to respond properly to requests for environmental information. This is amid concern about apparently low levels of awareness of environmental information law. The call comes as new figures reveal that the proportion of appeals received by the Commissioner on environmental issues has risen to the highest ever level, up to 14% of total appeals, from 8% five years ago.

The Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations (EIRs), give the public rights to environmental information; they sit alongside Scotland's freedom of information (FOI) law. The two pieces of legislation give similar rights to information but under the EIRs these rights are stronger and cover more organisations.

Last year, Scottish public authorities reported receiving 66,753 information requests, 7,196 of which they responded to under the EIRs. While the proportion of requests appealed to the Commissioner was just 0.7% overall, figures show that requests handled under the EIRs are more likely to be appealed, reflecting both the appetite for environmental information and supporting the Commissioner's concerns about levels of awareness.

Speaking at the launch of her 2014/15 Annual Report, Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew said:

"There is an increasing appetite for information on a range of environmental issues which are having greater and greater effect on our daily lives. Whether it is about pandas or potholes, windfarms or fish farms, flooding or fracking, the public is seeking information about how decisions that affect them are made, funded and implemented. If the public is to engage effectively in these matters, then they must be properly informed.

"Information requests must be responded to under the right law. Our experience suggests levels of awareness of the EIRs in authorities is lower than awareness of FOI law. Why does all this matter? Well, information that might be withheld under FOI may be disclosable under the EIRs which contain fewer circumstances where information can be withheld, and, significantly, all decisions taken to withhold information under the EIRs are subject to a public interest test. If authorities are failing to use the correct legislation they may be inadvertently denying requesters access to information they have a right to see".

Failure to respond

The Commissioner's 2014/15 Annual Report also reveals that the proportion of appeals she received about a failure to respond to both FOI and environmental information requests fell dramatically in the second half of the year, following publication of her Special Report to Parliament highlighting this issue.

Between April and September 2014, almost one third (32%) of the appeals to the Commissioner were made because a public body had failed to respond to a request. Following the publication in August 2014 of the Commissioner's Special Report, and her development of new resources to help authorities address this issue, this proportion fell to 16% between October 2014 and March 2015.

The Commissioner said:

"I am pleased that our work to address public authority failures to respond is bearing fruit. People ask for information because they need it, and if authorities ignore those requests or delay their responses, it can only damage public trust. By working to improve their performance, public bodies can help build better relations with the communities they serve."

Other highlights

Other highlights from the Commissioner's 2014/15 report include:

  • Public awareness of FOI is at its highest ever level, at 84%. This compares to 78% in September 2013.
  • 94% of the public think that FOI is important in holding public bodies to account.
  • The Commissioner received 474 appeals in 2014/15. 65 (14%) of these appeals were made in relation to environmental information requests and the remainder under FOI law.
  • The Commissioner found wholly or partially in favour of requesters in 64% of her decisions. Where an authority had incorrectly withheld information, the decision required it to be released.
  • The average age of cases closed by the Commissioner fell to its lowest level. At 3.18 months, the average age of closed cases is at the lowest level in 10 years of FOI.
  • 59% of appeals were made by members of the public. The media accounted for 14% of appeals, and prisoners 8%.
  • Public bodies reported receiving 66,804 information requests in 2014/15. The figures are reported in new online portal, set up by the Commissioner. The portal data also shows that 75% of requests resulted in some or all of the requested information being provided.

The Commissioner's 2014/15 Annual Report is available here.

ENDS

For further information contact the Commissioner's press team on 01334 464610, out of hours on 01334 464619, or email media@itspublicknowledge.info.

 

 

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