Survey finds public confused over information rights

23 November 2009

Research published by the Scottish Information Commissioner has revealed that, while the Scottish public's general awareness of freedom of information (FOI) remains high, the public's understanding of what the FOI right means in practice has decreased significantly. The research, which was conducted on behalf of the Commissioner by Progressive Scottish Opinion, reveals that while a general awareness of FOI stands at 76%, those understanding that FOI provides a legal right to access any information from public authorities, subject to certain exemptions, has dropped to 39% in 2009 (from 49% in 2008).

Commenting on the findings, the Scottish Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion said:

"It is surprising that understanding of freedom of information legislation has decreased. There have been many examples reported in the media of people and organisations using freedom of information legislation to access information, most recently in relation to MPs' expenses, and from this coverage we might expect understanding of FOI rights to be increasing.

The finding of this research highlights the importance for Scottish public authorities, when responding to requests, to inform people of their FOI rights, and more generally to include clear information about FOI on their websites.

"With this in mind I have instituted a programme of Practice Assessments to ensure that Scottish public authorities are following good practice in terms of FOI."

The Scottish Information Commissioner has now conducted assessments of 7 Scottish public authorities, and will assess a further 7 authorities in the remainder of 2009-2010. In general so far the Commissioner has been encouraged by the level of good practice being followed and authorities are co operating on voluntary action plans to remedy any deficiencies identified by the assessment. Visit the pages to find out more about practice assessments.

Other findings of the research

  • The public's relatively high awareness of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) has remained high. 76% of the Scottish population has at least some degree of awareness of FOISA. This is a 32% increase since the tracking research began in 2004.
  • Numbers of people making written requests to access information from public authorities remains unchanged from 2008 at 9%.
  • There is a significant difference across gender with males being twice as likely as females to have made a request to access information (12% males, 6% females).
  • Uncertainty over FOI rights is highest amongst over 65 year olds, and overall awareness of FOISA is much lower amongst the disabled population at 64% compared to 78%.
  • Accurate understanding of the legal right when accessing information has decreased significantly. Despite increasing since 2006, those understanding that they have the legal right to access any information they ask for, subject to certain exemptions, has dropped to 39% in 2009 (from 49% in 2008). There is continued confusion between the right to access general information held by public authorities under the freedom of information legislation, and people's right to access their own personal data under the Data Protection Act. The number of people believing they have no legal right has remained relatively low at 4%.
  • The 2009 study reinforces the findings of the 2008 awareness research that the public remain committed to the extension of FOI. As in 2008, the 2009 study finds at least two thirds of the Scottish population favour extending Scotland's FOI laws to cover bodies such as housing associations, leisure trusts, PPP/PFI projects and private prisons. The highest level of agreement is for private sector organisations that build and maintain NHS hospitals to be covered by freedom of information (81% agreeing they should be covered). Lowest levels of agreement are for Scottish private prisons to be covered.

Download the 2009 research report and data sets

Public Awareness Research Report 2009

Public Awareness Research 2009 Data sets

Commissioner on public awareness

You can watch the Commissioner talking about public awareness of FOI on Vimeo.

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