The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoIS) has accused the Scottish government of failing to deliver long-promised legal reforms aimed at strengthening the public’s right to know. “It is very disappointing,” said the campaign’s co-convenor, Carole Ewart.
“Given government principles supporting freedom of information, and the level of public support for extending coverage to all public service providers, the failure to take such an obvious opportunity to extend that coverage is very damaging to our rights.”
The Scottish Parliament’s Finance Committee has invited evidence on the Scottish government’s proposed Freedom of Information (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill before 8 August. CFoIS is launching a campaign to persuade others to back its demands for changes.
In a submission this week, seen by the Sunday Herald, CFoIS is calling for freedom of information law to cover many more public agencies. These include housing associations, various arms-length organisations set up by local authorities, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, the Law Society of Scotland, the Faculty of Advocates and other private and voluntary sector bodies that provide public services.
The UK government had taken a “more progressive” approach, said CFoIS, by extending freedom of information legislation to the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) and the Financial Ombudsman Service. UK ministers were also consulting on including many more, such as housing associations, the Law Society, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Local Government Association.
According to CFoIS, the only UK reform “cherry-picked” by Scottish ministers is the “regressive” move for a new exemption to freedom of information for the Queen and the next two in line for the throne, Prince Charles and Prince William. This is said to be a “step backwards” which creates “inconsistencies in the public’s right to know in Scotland”.
Maurice Frankel, the director of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “It’s a worrying development that in Scotland, where information rights have historically been more robust than in the UK, the new bill adopts the UK's restrictive approach of removing information about the monarchy from access, but ignores the small but significant progress being made to extend the scope of the UK Act.”
Campaigners were backed by the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), which argued that pressures on public services made people more anxious for information. It was “unacceptable” that organisations that spend billions of pounds of public money were not subject to scrutiny, said STUC deputy general secretary, Dave Moxham.
Support also came from politicians. “Far from being an open, transparent government, the SNP are increasingly showing disdain for freedom of information,” said Willie Rennie MSP, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
He pointed out that freedom of information had a direct impact on everyone’s daily lives, exposing NHS mistakes, civil service tax-dodgers and the like. “The bill is far too limited and should be extended to cover a wider range of government bodies currently not covered,” he added.
The Green MSP, Alison Johnstone, alleged that the Scottish government was “too close to big business”. She was hopeful that the Finance Committee would agree to extend freedom of information law to other bodies, including the private contractors taking over the management of nuclear weapons at Coulport on the Clyde.
According to the Scottish government, extending freedom of information coverage was still under consideration by ministers. “Once the proposed amendment bill has been considered by the Scottish Parliament and once the economic situation has improved, the government intends to return to the question of designation,” said a government spokeswoman.
“We believe it would be premature to extend coverage before the weaknesses in the Act can be put right, and the opportunity is taken to update the current legislation."