carol ewart convener of campaign for freedom of information scotland

Carole Ewart, Convener of Campaign for Freedom of Information Scotland

The press and media consistently reveal information of public interest, only sourced because individuals, journalists and organisations decided to use their right to know and make a request for information under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FoISA). 

Asserting the enforceable right to access information is now part of Scottish culture, and can be used by TSIs to inform their work and funding aspirations. 

Polling to assess the public mood published in 2017 by the Scottish Information Commissioner confirms this trend:

  • 85% of respondents had heard of FoISA
  • 94% agreed that it is important for the public to be able to access information
  • and 77% would be more likely to trust an authority that publishes a lot of information about its work

People also want the law enhanced to give them greater access to information held by those delivering public services, services of a public nature and those funded by the public purse. There is strong public agreement that information should be made available by public authorities on:

  • How public authorities spend their money (94%);
  • Reasons for the decisions public authorities make (90%);
  • How public authorities deliver their services and functions (94%);
  • Contracts with other organisations (84%);
  • Data and statistics about their performance (93%)[1]

 

Where are we now?

After 13 years of implementation, as FoISA became effective in January 2005, the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoIS) had thought much information would be pro-actively published avoiding the need for specific requests.  Whilst stuff is published, we remain disappointed about the type, pace and content of the information disclosed which confirms a culture, within some public sector bodies, that is resistant to transparency and therefore accountability.

The most high profile culprit is the Scottish Government which has decided to lead practice from the back – in other words allowed its delivery of FoISA rights and compliance with its duties to slide, significantly. The result is publicly embarrassing: it is the subject of two enforcement actions by the Scottish Information Commissioner and on 21st June 2017, the Scottish Parliament unanimously approved a motion:

That the Parliament condemns the Scottish Government’s poor performance in responding to freedom of information requests; calls for an independent inquiry into the way that it deals with these, and agrees to undertake post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, and welcomes commitments by the Scottish Government to adopt a policy of pro-actively publishing all material released under FOI to ensure that it is as widely available as possible.[2]

It is a matter of surprise and concern that nine months later neither inquiry has been established.

 

So, what is the solution? 

For CFoIS, we have meagre resources just like so many Third Sector organisations, but we have capitalised on voluntary effort and funding from organisations such as the National Union of Journalists and UNISON Scotland.  We have embarked on a project to reinvigorate the Scottish Public Information Forum (SPIF) which has gone through various incarnations but was originally established as a unique way to enable rights holders and duty bearers to meet and discuss how FoISA was being implemented.  The focus on frank informed discussion and equality in input was refreshing.

As an optimist, I remain shocked that it was sidelined into obscurity by the Scottish Government in 2010 and even vague promises of it being a virtual network were abandoned. 

Due to a grant from UNSION Scotland, CFoIS decided to reconvene it in May 2017 and we are delighted with the results.  After an initial successful meeting, SPIF met again in September 2017 and March 2018 due to the practical support from Voluntary Action Scotland and Glasgow Council for the Voluntary Sector.

SPIF’s remit is to ‘enable the long-term effectiveness of FoISA and the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004’ (EIR(S)s).

Its role is incorporated in the Scottish Government’s Six FoI principles published in 2007.[3]  SPIF has facilitated illuminating and instructive updates from the new Scottish Information Commissioner, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office about the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and from the Scottish Youth Parliament about its experience of using FoISA.

Importantly we have also heard how judgements from the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights have given an elevated right of access to information to voluntary organisations, under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, when they are seeking information in the public interest.

There is lots to do and discuss and we look forward to Dundee Women’s Aid hosting the next SPIF on 28th September 2018, to mark International Right to Know Day. We look forward to seeing you there!

Carole Ewart is Convener of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland 

 

[1] See OSIC website.

[2] Motion S5M-06126, Passed Unanimously on 21st June 2017 available here. 

[3] The Scottish Government’s six FoI principles state: “We ensure the effective operation of the Act by fostering and maintaining good working relationships on Freedom of Information with stakeholders such as other public authorities and the Scottish Public Information Forum.” More here.