SCOTLAND’s Information Commissioner has slapped down Nicola Sturgeon’s Government over her planned reforms to handling freedom of information requests.

Ministers agreed to make changes after the watchdog issued a critical report into the way the Government dealt with FOI in relation to groups including journalists.

Daren Fitzhenry, the SIC, has now expressed concern about an apparent lack of “clarity” in the continuing role of special advisers and ministers in the process.

Scotland’s FOI law, which came into force in 2005, gives citizens a right to information held by public bodies, unless it is covered by an exemption.

However, journalists from across the media last year signed an open letter complaining about the way the SNP Government handled their requests.

They complained of delaying tactics and requests being blocked or refused for tenuous reasons.

The reporters also claimed that their questions were being routinely handled by special advisers, who are political appointees, and screened for potential political damage.

Fitzhenry launched a review into the claims and he found that Government policy reinforced concerns of a two tier system for journalists, MSPs and political researchers.

He concluded there had been “unjustifiable, significant delays and disregard for the statutory timescales” and noted the Government took longer to respond to journalists’ requests than others.

Fitzhenry’s report also stated that the Government policies and procedures were not “clear enough about the role of special advisers in responding to FOI requests”.

Oppositions politicians claimed that the role of special advisers amounted to interference in the FOI system.

However, the Government’s “draft action plan” makes clear that special advisers – otherwise known as spads – will stay have a role at the end of the process.

“Cases identified as sensitive or exceptionally complex will, after clearance, be referred to SPADs and ministers for comment,” the draft states.

In his response to Government, Fitzhenry said he was “content” with the “majority” of the proposed actions, but noted: “I note that, for example, cases identified as sensitive or exceptionally complex will be referred to special advisers and Ministers for 'comment' after 'clearance'. I am concerned that this will not provide the desired clarity or transparency.

“As my report provided, the role of ministers and special advisers must be made clear to all in the process, including requesters.”

Neil Findlay, Scottish Labour’s parliamentary business manager, said:

“The SNP government’s response to the damning report earlier this year into their misuse of Freedom of Information laws is nothing more than a sham.

“Instead of stopping politicians and taxpayer funded spin doctors interfering in journalists requests they have institutionalised it.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “As is well known, the Scottish Government co-operated fully with the Scottish Information Commissioner’s recent comprehensive independent review of our Freedom of Information practice and performance.

“FoI legislation allows for special advisers and ministers to be involved in the process and that the Commissioner found no misuse of FoI law by the Scottish Government.

“It is important to note that at no point in any of the seven key recommendations in the Commissioner’s report does he suggest that special advisers should not continue to provide advice to ministers and colleagues, as is their proper function.”