Decisions Round-up: 3 to 10 May 2013

We published three decisions this week.

Key messages:

  • Sensitivity of information may decline over time

The legislation contains an exemption to protect Ministers from having to release information which could inhibit the formulation of policy.  However, the fact that information relates to policy formulation is not enough to justify withholding it. The public interest must be considered.  Once a policy matter has been settled, it's likely that the public interest in withholding related information will diminish over time.  A similar principle applies for other authorities who are thinking about whether releasing information will inhibit their free and frank discussions and deliberations.

  • Ensure your arguments relate to the specific information being considered

This is a frequently recurring theme in Decisions Round-Up, but is worth mentioning again because of its importance.  If you want to apply an exemption, make sure that your arguments and evidence for applying it relate directly to the specific information in the case.  If you can do this, it's more likely the applicant will accept your response, or the Commissioner will uphold your position if the case is appealed. If you can't do it - then ask yourself if the exemption really applies.

Summary of decisions:

  • Decision 074/2013 - Dr Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt and Glasgow City Council (the Council)

Dr Gordon-Nesbitt's request for information, and subsequent request for review, went unanswered by the Council. Following her appeal to us, the Council acknowledged it had failed to respond, and provided a response to Dr Gordon-Nesbitt during the investigation. The Council explained that its failure to respond was due to an administrative error on its part.

Mr Longmuir, of the Scottish Rural Schools Network, asked the Council for details of the timesheets and expenses of two Council employees, for a specific time period, along with information relating to school assessment and inspection. The Council refused on the grounds that it was personal information, and release would breach the Data Protection Principles. When the case was appealed to us, the Commissioner found that, while Mr Longmuir had a legitimate interest in the information, this was outweighed by the potential harm and distress which would be caused to the employees by its release. In coming to this decision, the Commissioner considered the relatively junior position held by the employees, and evidence that similar information had been used to make critical remarks about Council employees online.

Dr McLeod asked Ministers for information relating to their use of Gaelic in the Scottish Government's corporate identify, including its logo. Ministers withheld some of the information, claiming it related to the formulation of policy, and its release might cause officials to become inhibited about discussing policy options in future, for fear of information about these discussions being released.

The Commissioner found that, as the policy on changing the name of the Scottish Government was finalised four years before Dr McLeod made his request, the public interest in withholding it had declined over that time. She also dismissed arguments that information relating to promoting Gaelic could be misinterpreted - Ministers could have explained the issues to avoid this difficulty. Generally, the Commissioner found that the Ministers arguments were overly general - as they didn't relate to the specific information being withheld, she ordered release. However in one case, where specific arguments were made, the Commissioner accepted the document should be withheld.

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