The year ahead
As I enter my last 12 months as Scottish Information Commissioner, many challenges remain.
It is important that the freedom of information regime meets its original aspirations and keeps up with international developments. Principal amongst these is ensuring that the right to know is protected and extended in those areas where public services are being delivered by different means. One of my statutory functions is to make proposals to Ministers for designation, so I was very disappointed when the Government announced in January 2011 that it would not, in this Parliament, bring within the scope of FOI those bodies which it had been minded to designate. These had included private prisons, local authority leisure trusts and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland. The fact the powers to designate additional bodies have not yet been used runs contrary to the assurances which were given in Parliament when the original legislation was passed nearly 9 years ago. The right to know is being eroded as public services are delivered by arms length bodies and, instead of leading the way on FOI, we are in danger of falling behind.
The Government has signalled its intention to bring forward an Amendment Bill to remedy some of the deficiencies which have become apparent such as the restricted timescale in which to bring prosecutions where an offence of altering or destroying a record to prevent disclosure occurs. It is also an opportunity to make welcome changes proposed by the Government such as reducing the period after which a record becomes a historical record to 15 years.
I will be contributing to the consultation, but am mindful that, if the Bill becomes a complete overhaul of the FOI regime, not only will necessary changes be delayed but less beneficial measures may also be proposed.
For my own part, I will carry into effect initiatives which are intended to reduce the burden of FOI compliance and speed up investigations. A single model publication scheme is being piloted, capable of being adopted by all authorities. This will remove the need for hundreds of bespoke schemes to be approved, and promote high common standards for the proactive publication of information.
Changes to our investigation procedures have also been signalled to all public authorities. These set out that my decisions will, in most cases, be taken on the basis of the initial submission that the authority makes to me. Authorities are therefore expected to make their case in full at the first time of asking. Where the authority claims that disclosure will be harmful, or will not be in the public interest, then the basis of that claim needs to be fully set out in their submission. This will reduce the time taken to investigate cases, and get information into the hands of requesters even more quickly where their appeal is upheld.
The Centre for Freedom of Information, our initiative with the University of Dundee Law School, has proven to be a valuable forum for professional deliberation of FOI law in practice, and new developments this year will include academic courses aimed at FOI practitioners. In addition, I will be publishing a handbook of Freedom of Information in Scotland through the auspices of Dundee University Press
Scottish Information Commissioner