News and Commentary from the Scottish Information Commissioner

News and commentary from the Scottish Information Commissioner

March / April 2011

 
Commissioner's Commentary
Kevin Dunion

This month sees the publication of my 2011/12 Operational Plan. The lifespan of this plan will take the organisation on beyond February 2012, when my second and final term as the first Scottish Information Commissioner concludes.

While my first term was very much focussed on ensuring that the machinery for an effective FOI regime was in place, my second term has shifted the focus towards ensuring that Scotland's newly-established FOI machinery is operating as effectively and efficiently as possible.

This change of focus was set out in my Strategic Plan for 2008-2012, and my 2011/12 Operational Plan will ensure that we continue to deliver on the key objectives from that strategic plan.

In particular, over the next year, we aim to deliver on the following key areas:


Improving compliance

We will work to support Scottish public authorities in improving their own compliance with FOI by undertaking the following activity:

  • The successful programme of public authority assessments will continue during 2011/12, with 12 good practice assessments - reviewing the FOI performance of a range of different public authorities - scheduled to be carried out over the year.
  • The revised approach to publication schemes will continue to be rolled out through the implementation and development of a single model scheme, ensuring that all public authorities ultimately conform to best standards in terms of the information they publish.  We will also implement an audit strategy to ensure that individual authorities are meeting their obligations and complying with this standard.
  • We will develop and publish new guidance on key areas of FOI policy to assist authorities with their compliance.
  • In October, I will publish, in association with Dundee University Press, a major new handbook Freedom of Information in Scotland in Practice. This publication draws on my own experience as Commissioner to provide advice, analysis and reflection on the interpretation and implementation of FOI in Scotland. The handbook will be of value to FOI practitioners, requesters and campaigners, and will help to ensure that future FOI requests can be made, and responded to, as effectively as possible.
  • The 2011/12 Centre for FOI seminar programme, in partnership with the Dundee School of Law, will launch in September, with four seminars focusing on key aspects of FOI law scheduled to take place over 2011/12. Alongside this, we will work with the Law School to develop a taught programme on FOI, aimed at Scotland's information professionals.


Enhancing performance

We will also continue to improve and enhance our own organisational performance, ensuring that those who make appeals to the Commissioner have their cases dealt with as swiftly and as effectively as possible. In doing so, we plan to:

  • further reduce the time taken to investigate and close cases, ensuring that the average case closure time is reduced to 20 weeks
  • undertake planning to ensure that the effect of any future financial or resource constraints will, as far as possible, have a minimal effect on our operational efficiency
  • improve efficiency through the implementation of a new internal case management system.


Raising awareness

Work will continue to ensure that the Scottish public understand their rights and how they might be used. We will do this through:

  • the ongoing development and promotion of the website so that it operates as a user-friendly and accessible "one-stop-shop" for anyone seeking information on using or interpreting FOI laws
  • undertaking a programme of regional "roadshows", in partnership with key voluntary sector bodies, to raise awareness of FOI and its effective use amongst Scottish civil society
  • preparing briefing material for new and returning MSPs, to ensure that FOI can be effectively used to advise and support constituents.


Developing the law

We will continue to support the development of FOI law, working to ensure that the legislation in Scotland remains "fit for purpose" - keeping pace with both changes within the Scottish public sector and international best practice on openness. Our work will include:

  • contributing to the development of the Scottish Government's proposed FOI Amendment Bill
  • the laying of a special report to the Scottish Parliament at the conclusion of my second term, reflecting on my experience as Commissioner, and considering the evolution and future of FOI in Scotland
  • supporting the Centre for FOI to develop proposals for research into the Scottish FOI experience.

Full details of both my operational and strategic plans are available on the strategic plan page of my website.

 

Kevin Dunion's Signature

Kevin Dunion
Scottish Information Commissioner

 
Our Work At a Glance - May 2010 to April 2011

 

Enquiries Chart Mar Apr 2011New Applications Chart Mar Apr 2011

 

 Cases Closed Mar Apr 2011Cases otherwise closed Mar Apr 2011

 

 
Key Decisions Issued
Your Right to Know Booklet cover

Local authority appeals

As ever, we dealt with a number of cases involving Scottish local authorities in March and April, with 50% of the decisions issued involving councils -reflecting both the number of local authorities in Scotland and the wide range of services they provide.

Decisions covered matters such as community care charges (Decision 067/2011), contact details of registered landlords (Decision 063/2011), the cost of restructuring an addiction service (Decision 060/2011) and sums paid to a company brought in to carry out an analysis of council tax debt (Decision 074/2011).

It is clear from our ongoing caseload that the cost of council services, and council spending in general is of interest to the people served by local authorities. With an increasing pressure on budgets, looming service cuts (and challenges being made against local authority cuts in the courts), it is likely that even more of these types of cases will be appealed to the Commissioner in the coming years.


Environmental concerns

A lot of attention is placed on the FOI Act, but it's important to remember that the Commissioner is also responsible for enforcing the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (the EIRs).

In March and April, nearly one quarter of the decisions issued by the Commissioner dealt with requests for environmental information - even if the applicants were not aware that their requests should be considered under the EIRs.

The definition of environmental information in the EIRs is wide - something which can be seen in the subject matter of the decisions issued. However, it is not always immediately clear whether a request is covered by the EIRs.

Some cases are more obvious than others e.g. requests regarding the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit (Decision 064/2011) and representations made by Prince Charles about red squirrels (Decision 039/2011). Cases involving planning permission are also usually subject to the EIRs - e.g. planning permission for pontoon moorings on the River Leven (Decision 081/2011) or for new homes to be built in Alexandria (Decision 036/2011).

In some cases, however, it is necessary to look closely at the nature of the information covered by the request before it becomes clear whether the EIRs apply. One case (Decision 061/2011), involved a request for details of the fee proposed by a consultancy firm. On first glance, this could be a FOI case. However, because the work to be carried out related to peat extraction and the impact of the extraction on a special protection area, the information request should have been considered under the EIRs.

Similarly, a request for Transport Edinburgh Ltd's business plan (Decision 048/2011) was deemed to constitute a request for environmental information. The business plan related to the construction of the Edinburgh tram system, work on which would clearly affect the state of the elements of the environment.

 
Practice Assessment Update
Practice Assessment Image

The Commissioner's assessment team undertook a practice assessment of Scottish Water during February 2011.

The assessment was carried out following the emergence of a number of concerns about the organisation's FOI procedures and practices, not least the comparatively high volume of appeals received. Decisions issued in relation to these appeals had also identified failings in terms of compliance with statutory timescales, the adequacy of searches for information, and the appropriate identification of requests which should be dealt with under the EIRs.

During the assessment, however, the Commissioner's team were encouraged by the positive attitude towards transparency and openness shown by Scottish Water staff, and the positioning of its FOI function within its organisational structure.  However, assessors also identified a number of shortcomings which did not support Scottish Water's fulfilment of its obligations under FOI.

The assessors identified weaknesses in Scottish Water's basic FOI infrastructure, concluding  that the overall level of general awareness of the FOI Act and the EIRs within Scottish Water needs to be improved and maintained throughout the organisation.

Other key recommendations focused on the development of a formal review process, the review of current FOI guidance and standard template letters/responses, the formal identification of key FOI contacts within each department, the consistent monitoring and logging of requests and associated correspondence, and the development of internal performance reporting systems.

Scottish Water engaged fully and constructively with the assessment process and it was mutually agreed that a review of Scottish Water's FOI processes and procedures would be undertaken by the Commissioner's Office in 12 months, to assess the changes it has implemented.

 

 

 
Our News in Brief
Pile of Newspapers

Court Appeals

During the past couple of months, two appeals have been lodged by public authorities in the Court of Session against decisions of the Commissioner.

The first of these relates to a request made by a journalist from The Daily Telegraph who asked the Ministers for information about local income tax projections. The second relates to a request made to South Lanarkshire Council by an equal pay campaigner for the numbers of employees on specific pay points within the Council.

No dates have yet been set for the hearings. 

____________________

Reporting on the media

On 28 March the Commissioner hosted a roundtable discussion to explore the ways in which FOI is used by the Scottish media - and the ways in which authorities respond to journalists' requests.

The event, which was organised in partnership with Holyrood Magazine, was attended by journalists, FOI experts and information practitioners, and a wide range of topics was covered in what proved to be a lively and interesting debate.

A report on the debate is available online from the Holyrood Magazine website. You can also hear the Commissioner reflect on the discussion in a podcast interview with Quiet News Day.

____________________

 Regional Roadshows
As part of our 2011/12 Operational Plan, we will be undertaking a series of FOI "Roadshows" around the country throughout the year. The centrepiece of these roadshow events will be a two-hour FOI workshop, entitled Making freedom of information work for you.

Workshops will be open to staff or volunteers from campaign groups and voluntary sector organisations, as well as any member of the public with an interest in finding out how to make effective use of FOI, and how the FOI "right to information" may benefit their own campaign, research or information gathering activity.

Workshops are currently planned for:

  • Dumfries and Galloway (Castle Douglas and Dumfries) - Tuesday 21 June 2011
  • Fife (Cupar) - Tuesday 28 June 2011
  • Strathclyde (Glasgow) - Tuesday 30 August 2011.

If you are interested in attending any of these workshops, or would like more information, telephone 01334 464610, or email enquiries@itspublicknowledge.info.

____________________ 

FOI in West Africa

The Commissioner has been invited to visit Ghana in June to speak to delegates from across West Africa on his experience of the successful implementation of FOI. Delegates will attend from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ghana, each of which is currently at the early stages of implementing its own national FOI law.

The visit, which is funded by the World Bank, is part of a programme of events organised by the South African International School for Transparency and the US Carter Center, aimed at exploring and promoting the benefits of open governance for the region.

 ____________________

FOI appeal timescales further reduced

We are pleased to report that the Commissioner's 2010/11 operational plan objective to reduce the average timescale of cases under investigation to 22 weeks was achieved - itself a reduction from the 2009/10 objective of 26 weeks.

For 2011/12, we are seeking to reduce this timescale further, and will be working towards a new target of 20 weeks, in order to ensure that the FOI appeals brought to the Commissioner can be resolved as swiftly and effectively as possible.

____________________ 

.

Commissioner's handbook to be published in October

The Commissioner's handbook on FOI is scheduled to be published in October 2011, the manuscript having been submitted this month to Dundee University Press for publication.

The book, entitled Freedom of Information in Scotland in Practice, will be an international first, in that it is the first time that a serving Commissioner has published detailed guidance on the interpretation and enforcement of FOI law in this way. Watch this space for details of how to obtain a copy of this essential new publication.

____________________

New "Your Rights" pages provide FOI advice

In April we launched new web pages for members of the public looking for guidance on using their FOI rights. As well as information on making a request, and what to do if information is refused, these pages also contain a range of innovative resources to help people better understand how to use their FOI rights. These include a short animated guide to FOI, video stories of typical FOI requesters talking about their experiences and, of course, our popular "response calculator" which explains when you should expect to receive a response to your information request under FOI.

The new resources are available at www.itspublicknowledge.info/yourrights.

The animated guide and video case studies can also be downloaded free of charge, so that public authorities, voluntary organisations and others can use the resources when providing their own information on FOI.

____________________

Improved information on finance and governance

We have published new information on our finance, expenditure and governance arrangements on our website. This includes our first annual statements of expenditure on PR, hospitality and overseas travel, external consultancy and items of expenditure over ?25,000, as required by the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010.

The new web pages also provide more information about how the Commissioner ensures good governance and is held to account - including an explanation of the relationship between the Commissioner and the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, following the Scottish Parliamentary Commissions and Commissioners etc Act 2010, and the role of his Advisory Audit Board. We will also shortly publish statements under the Act, explaining what we are doing to promote efficiency, effectiveness and economy, and increase sustainable growth.

The new information can be found at www.itspublicknowledge.info/Governance/

 
FOI News
Image of globe

Scotland

  • The Public Records (Scotland) Bill received Royal Assent on 20 April 2011. The Bill is the first new public records legislation in Scotland for over 70 years. Read a parliamentary briefing on the Bill.
  • The new Scottish Government has announced that it is to introduce legislation allowing publication of papers from the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission in relation to the Lockerbie disaster. Under current legislation, the release of SCCRC files can be blocked by one or more of the parties that gave evidence to the review.

Across the UK

  • The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has published its Internal FOI and EIR knowledge base.This includes the ICO's "lines to take" documents, which "capture the Commissioner's position in relation to issues that have arisen in casework or as a result of Tribunal Decisions."
  • The Ministry of Justice has published its annual FOI statistics for central government bodies in 2010.

Around the world

  • Emily O'Reilly, the Irish Information Commissioner, has published her Annual Report for 2010. In the report, she welcomes the Irish Government's commitment to extend FOI to cover additional bodies.
  • Papers are available from the First Global Conference on Transparency Research, which took place at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The event brought together 160 international academics, civil society members and government officials to explore and discuss 130 research papers covering all areas of transparency.
  • The World Bank has launched a public accountability database, that includes a detailed assessment of the FOI laws of more than 70 countries (including the UK FOI Act, but not the Scottish legislation). The database reviews and assesses FOI laws across 30 subcategories, and includes an assessment of the scope of the legislation, the ease of use, enforcement mechanisms, exemptions, timescales and sanctions for non-compliance. To access the data, visit www.agidata.org/pam/ProfileListByAbc.aspx, click on a country, and then click on the "Freedom of Information" link on the page. The database is still under development, with new features, including the ability to download all database data, due to be added shortly.
 
Contact Us
Group photo of Commissioner's staff in 2010 standing on staircase.

We are pleased to provide information and guidance on any issue relating to freedom of information in Scotland.  We'd also like to hear any thoughts or suggestions you have about this newsletter, or our website. 

You can contact us at:

Scottish Information Commissioner, Kinburn Castle, Doubledykes Road, St Andrews, KY16 9DS

Telephone: 01334 464610
Website: www.itspublicknowledge.info
Email: enquiries@itspublicknowledge.info
Fax: 01334 464611

 
 
Terms & Conditions | Privacy | www.itspublicknowledge.info