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Scots public support strengthening of Freedom of Information laws says Information Commissioner in final speech to Holyrood FOI Conference

16 Dec

dunionScotland’s Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion calls on Scottish Govt to strengthen FOI legislation. THE outgoing Scottish Information Commissioner Mr Kevin Dunion has today called on the Scottish Government to strengthen & extend Scotland’s FREEDOM OF INFORMATION laws after new research revealed 91% of the Scottish public view FOI as an important way to hold public bodies to account for their spending decisions, and over 80% want FOI extended to cover other bodies that provide public services. The Commissioner, who has today delivered his final keynote address to the Annual Holyrood Freedom of Information Conference, also warned AGAINST changes which might limit the public’s access to information, in light of evidence that being charged for information would deter 64% of people from making an FOI request.

Speaking on the eve of the conference, Kevin Dunion said: “Freedom of information has been a success story in Scotland, and public awareness of the law is at an all time high. However, there are clearly a number of areas where the law would benefit from further clarification and enhancement, and we await the Scottish Government’s proposals. More generally, I have long called for FOI to be extended to a greater range of organisations, particularly in light of the loss of rights that occurs from changes in the way that public services are delivered. We are in danger of falling behind the rest of the UK where, unlike Scotland, designation of bodies such as the Association of Chief Police Officers has already taken place. Furthermore, the Westminster Government has indicated its intention to designate many more bodies including the Law Society and the Local Government Association.”

Mr Dunion added : “Where amendments to the law are being considered we must be extremely cautious about any suggestion that the FOI right should be restricted, for example through wider exemptions or the introduction of increased fees for requesters. We know from the experience overseas that this can have a very damaging effect on the public’s uptake of FOI. The research published today shows that a significant proportion of the Scottish public – 64% – believe they would be put off making an FOI request if they had to pay to receive the information, and this figure is even higher among more vulnerable groups, such as young people and the unemployed.”

Freedom of Information legislation has played a particularly important role in revealing just how inefficient & anti-consumer the Scottish legal services market is regulated by bodies such as the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, where consumers have faced regular & overt prejudice in the SLCC’s dealings with complaints made by members of the public against their solicitors. FOI also revealed earlier this year how corrupt usage of self regulation of the legal profession has led to millions of pounds of legal aid being stolen by solicitors who escaped criminal charges because their colleagues at the Crown Office did not gather enough evidence to prosecute.

The research, which was carried out by Ipsos MORI in December 2011 and can be downloaded via the  Commissioner’s website or read onlineHERE here , also reveals that :

Awareness of FOI is at its highest level, with 80% of respondents stating that they were aware of the law, compared to 76% during the previous wave in 2009,

89% of respondents agree that it is important for the public to be able to access information held by public authorities,

Even in straitened times for the public sector, 77% disagreed with the suggestion that FOI was a waste of public money, with only 14% agreeing.

There is strong public support for FOI to be extended to cover additional organisations, with:

88% agreeing that trusts providing services on behalf of local authorities should be covered,
82% agreeing that housing associations should be covered,
83% agreeing that private sector companies who build and maintain local authority schools or hospitals should be covered,
73% agreeing that prisons which are run by the private sector should be covered.

The research was undertaken as part of Ipsos MORI’s Scottish Public Opinion Monitor, a telephone survey of 1,001 members of the public. Fieldwork was undertaken between 1 December and 4 December 2011. 64% of respondents agreed that they would be put off making an FOI request if they had to pay for the information. For respondents who described themselves as “not working” this figure was 70%, while it was 80% for respondents aged 18-24.

In September the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government 2011-2012 included a Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, which is intended to add strength and clarity to the FOI legislation. The Government has announced its intention to publish a consultation paper on the Amendment Bill today which readers can find out more about on the Scottish Government’s Consultations website with a direct link to the consultation on FOI here : Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill

Margaret Scanlan - Called to the Bars - Sunday Mail  15 March 2009 emailFOI investigations revealed SLCC board members cared more about boozing-up & insulting consumers than prosecuting crooked lawyers. Freedom of Information legislation has played a particularly important role in revealing just how inefficient & anti-consumer the Scottish legal services market is regulated by bodies such as the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, where consumers have faced bitter booze fuelled anti-client hate rants by the SLCC’s own board members & regular & overt prejudice in dealings with complaints made to the SLCC by members of the public against their solicitors. While FOI has revealed many problems at the SLCC, the Law Society of Scotland, Faculty of Advocates & Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal remain exempt from FOI legislation due to a variety of excuses and an intense lobbying campaign from the legal profession for their own organisations to remain secret & unaccountable from the law & public opinion.

FOI also revealed earlier this year how corrupt usage of self regulation of the legal profession led to millions of pounds of legal aid being stolen by solicitors who escaped criminal charges because their colleagues at the Crown Office were not able to gather enough evidence to prosecute, even though lengthy investigations had already been conducted by the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

SCOTLAND’S FIRST INFORMATION COMMISSIONER DEPARTS OFFICE 2012 :

Kevin Dunion was appointed as the first Scottish Information Commissioner in February 2003. In February 2008 he was reappointed for a second, and final term. He will demit office at the end of February 2012. The Commissioner is responsible for enforcing and promoting Scotland’s freedom of information laws. In January 2012, the Commissioner plans to lay a Special Report before the Scottish Parliament. The report will set out the Commissioner’s views on the current state of Freedom of Information in Scotland. Find out more about the Scottish Information Commissioner’s work and FOI generally at www.itspublicknowledge.info

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