Public bodies, which had long hidden behind spurious claims of the need for confidentiality and routinely operated on a need-to-know basis, have been forced to recognise that the public has a right to know how their money is being spent and to access accurate information on requirements such as health and safety.

Individuals of all sorts have exercised their right to know. In cases such as the C. diff Justice Group, they have not only discovered the facts about the deaths of their own relatives, but have also provided a public service in bringing to light information of general importance, which is now to be the subject of a public inquiry.

The requirement for public bodies to provide information has coincided with increased access to the internet, making it easier for people with ­common concerns to share knowledge, compare services and build

campaigns. Groups such as the Rare Cancers Forum have therefore been able to campaign against a ­postcode lottery in treatment from a position of knowledge.

Such grassroots movements have gained added strength from the accessibility to the Scottish Parliament ­provided by the Petitions Committee, which has proved a productive ­channel for individuals campaigning for change. Holyrood, as one of the first targets for scrutiny under FOI ­legislation, is an example of how embracing transparency is ultimately a strengthening process. Although an FOI inquiry on expenses led to the ­resignation of David McLetchie as Scottish Conservative leader, the ­subsequent decision to publish all MSPs’ expenses claims gave them the moral high ground as their Westminster colleagues became mired in the exposure of a system which encouraged excessive claims.

It is a welcome side effect of the FOI legislation that the majority of ­Scotland’s 10,000 public bodies have improved their record-keeping and accountability procedures as a result of knowing they can be open to scrutiny.

Despite the significant advances towards a presumption of openness, however, changes in the way services are delivered, unforeseen at the time the legislation was passed in 2002, have resulted in a range of new publicly funded bodies which are outwith its remit. They include prisons run by ­private companies, housing associations and the increasing number of arms-length organisations set up by councils (most extensively in Glasgow) to provide services from care for the elderly to sports centres and museums.

This has brought the growing culture of transparency to “a significant ­crossroads” in the view of Kevin ­Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner. It is a timely reminder that FOI remains a fragile concept. There will always be vested interests who would prefer not to have their decisions, their budgets or their results open to public scrutiny. True accountability, which will be more necessary than ever as public bodies look for budget cuts, depends on information being available. Having gained so much, it is essential that we do not allow bodies which operate on our behalf to retreat into the dark ages.