New year means new rights as freedom of information law comes into effect.

NEWS RELEASE - Issued 22nd December, 2004

The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 will come into force on January 1st 2005. It will create for the first time a statutory right to access any recorded information held by Scottish public authorities. The Act also creates a right of appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner against decisions to withhold information.

The Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, said:
?This freedom of information law provides Scotland?s citizens with an important new right ? the right to access information held by almost all of Scotland?s public authorities, from the Scottish Executive down to your local GP. The first of January will therefore bring about a fundamental change in the relationship between citizens and authorities, ensuring that it is more open and more equal than ever before. This can only be a good thing ? good for individuals, good for authorities, and good for Scotland as a whole.?

Things everyone should know about Scotland?s Freedom of Information Act

  1. The Freedom on Information (Scotland) Act 2002 comes fully into force on January 1st 2005. It creates a right to access any recorded information of any age held by Scottish public authorities, taking in all formal reports, minutes and accounts through to e-mails, notes and statistical data.
  2. More than 10,000 bodies are covered by the Act, including the Scottish Parliament and Executive, the NHS, local authorities, police forces, colleges and universities.
  3. Requests for information under the Act should be made directly to the relevant public authority in writing or some other recordable form (e.g. e-mail or audio tape). Applicants don?t need to mention the Act, nor do they need to explain why they want it. All that is required is a description of the information sought and a name and address for correspondence.
  4. Once a valid request has been received, public authorities must respond promptly, and no later than 20 working days later, either providing the information or setting out why it is to be withheld. If providing the information costs the authority more than ?100, the applicant may be asked to pay a small proportion in a fee.
  5. Information can only be withheld if it falls under one of a series of exemptions listed in the Act. For example, information can be legitimately withheld if it would harm law enforcement processes, or where it would threaten the health or safety of any person. Even where information falls under an exemption, in most cases information must still be released if the public interest in release outweighs that in withholding it.
  6. Applicants have the right to challenge decisions to withhold information under the Act. The first step is to ask the public authority to review its decision. Following this review, a dissatisfied applicant can appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner.
  7. The Scottish Information Commissioner is an independent public official. His role is to enforce and promote the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act. He has the power to investigate disputed cases and can force an authority to release information if it has failed to comply with the Act.
  8. Central government departments that operate in Scotland are not covered by the Scottish Act. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (which also comes into force on January 1st) applies to public authorities in England and Wales, and those that operate across the whole of the UK.
  9. Individuals already have the right under the Data Protection Act 1998 to ask organisations for information about themselves. Requests for personal information made by the subject will continue to fall under the scope of data protection.
  10. More than 50 countries around the world now have some form of FOI law in place. The first law to give a right to access official documents was the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act of 1766.

For more information, contact Claire Sigsworth on 01334 464610

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