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SECRET SCOTS : FOI Chief Rosemary Agnew voices transparency concerns as Scottish Public Authorities fail on Freedom of Information requests

01 Oct

Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew raises concerns over FOI failures. SCOTTISH Public Authorities are failing to respond to Freedom of Information requests on time, says Scotland’s Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew in her 2012-2013 Annual Report published today. The report reveals a 14% rise in appeals to the Scottish Information Commissioner’s office during the last year with 27% of those cases relating to failures by public authorities to respond to FOI requests.

Speaking at the launch of her Annual Report, Commissioner Rosemary Agnew revealed that there was a 14% rise in appeals to her office in 2012/13, and that 27% of those appeals related to a failure by the public authority to respond. This is the highest proportion of such appeals to date. Under Scottish FOI law, public authorities have a legal duty to respond to the requests they receive within 20 working days.

The publication of the report coincides with new research which reveals that only 49% of the Scottish public are confident that they would receive an FOI response within 20 working days, with only 10% stating that they would be “very confident” of a response.

Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew said: “These findings concern me. Eight years on from the introduction of FOI, we would expect authorities to be more effective at handling requests, not less so. When they don’t respond, authorities fail to respect people’s legal rights to information: information which can be extremely important to individuals and communities. By contrast, authorities that perform well take a customer focussed approach, respond promptly and engage with requesters.

“A failure to respond can also harm public perception of FOI. While many FOI requests are answered on time and a lot of information is provided, the research findings reveal that this is certainly not the public’s perception.

“Scottish public authorities that are falling short should take steps to address their performance as an immediate priority. In doing so, they should also remember that failing to respond doesn’t make requests go away, but just creates unnecessary extra work and increases costs. Failure to respond generates complaints, review requests, and appeals to my office, and damages a public authority’s reputation. The most efficient option is to get it right first time.”

As those who make FOI requests and many in the media will know, some of the most persistent offenders in Scotland are local authorities, Departments of the Scottish Government, NHS Scotland trusts and others all eager to cover up internal scandals, the persisting, endemic jobs for the boys culture, the pernicious abuse of vulnerable individuals and widespread waste of public funds including large, sometimes secret pay-outs to top public officials the details of which only emerge after months of wrangling over the terms of FOI replies, requests for reviews and a possible appeal to the Information Commissioner.

Key public authorities in charge of the justice system are well known to journalists as some of the worst offenders, which include Scotland’s prosecution service the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) who appear to be operating a policy of regular delay in response to FOI requests.

It has been found in many cases brought to the attention of the media that Crown Office staff have persistently engaged in expanding the required time to reply to FOI requests by weeks, even months in some cases, while in others, regular refusals to hand out information have become a staple diet of Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland’s £100million a year Crown Office.

Commenting on the Information Commissioner’s report, a Scottish government spokeswoman said: “Scotland has the most robust freedom of information regime in the UK, with a transparency system that sets an example for other nations to aspire to.”

“In 2012 we received over 1,900 FoI requests – the highest number on record – and we are on course to receive even more in 2013. We strive to respond on time to all cases, and the number of technical appeals we receive has decreased since the end of March 2013.”

She added: “Our commitment to proactive publication and sharing of information with the public is enshrined in legislation.”

Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew has also announced today she is planning to lay a Special Report for the Scottish Parliament exploring such failures in the spring.

The Commissioner’s 2012/13 Annual report: Upholding the right to know reveals that:

The number of FOI appeals increased by 14% over the last year, to 594 appeals.

564 cases were closed, a 9% increase on the previous year.

The Commissioner found completely in favour of requesters in 37% of cases and completely in favour of authorities in a further 37%. The remainder were partially upheld.

60% of appeals were made by members of the public

43% of appeals related to local government bodies and 31% related to the Scottish Ministers or the Scottish Parliament.

Enquiries to the Commissioner rose by 8% last year.

The report also contains examples of how FOI has been used by the Scottish public over the last year, seeking a wide range of information on issues relating to housing, health, transport, education and the environment.

Discussing the rise in FOI appeals, Rosemary Agnew said: “Our case volumes have continued to rise, with a 14% rise over the last year and a 49% increase in the last five years. I’m happy to report that we’ve been able to manage these increases through a combination of hard work and a considered review of how we conduct our business. As a result, we have closed more cases than ever and reduced the time we take to investigate appeals.

“However, I am concerned about how sustainable this position will be in the longer term. These advances have been achieved against a backdrop of decreasing resources, and if volumes continue to rise, it will pose significant challenges to my ability to enforce FOI effectively.”

Appeal statistics – by Region and Sector

More detailed information on appeals received since 2005, broken down by public authority, region and sector, are available in the following spreadsheets:

2012/13 Public Authority Tables – by Sector (Excel – 597kB)

2012/13 Public Authority Tables – by Region (Excel – 1.6MB)

Technical appeals

These are appeals made following a public authority’s failure to respond with the FOI Act’s 20-working day timescale.

The 2012/13 Technical appeals investigated – by authority reveals that 29% of the appeals investigated by the Commissioner in 2012/13 related to such a failure to respond.

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