SCOTLAND should be proud of its legislation on freedom of information, which has helped expose the truth on everything from hospital-acquired infections to the closure of schools. But the legislation passed almost 15 years ago should always be seen as the beginning of change, not the end. FOI is a fragile concept that has to be carefully protected against vested interests and any backsliding by government or public bodies.

Which is why the proposal to allow some public bodies three times as long to respond to requests is concerning. Under the plans, grant-aided and independent special schools would be permitted 60 days to answer an FOI request rather than 20, the justification being that a 60-day limit takes into account the fact that the schools face particular challenges and are closed for long stretches during the holidays.

On the face of it, the change may look benign, but The Campaign for Freedom of Information is right to express concern that the FOI legislation could be undermined in the longer term. When it was passed in 2002, it was regarded as one of the world’s strongest laws on access to information, but in the years since, there has been a worry that changes in the way public services are delivered has put some publicly-funded organisations outwith the remit of the law, which is unacceptable: any organisation that spends public money should be subject to FOI.

Every public body should also be required to respond to requests timeously. One of the strengths of FOI is that the rules, including the 20-day limit, apply across the board, and there is a danger that changing the rule for one could lead to changing it for others. Allowing some schools 60 days to respond is not in itself a profound challenge to the legislation, but what is to stop other organisations making the same arguments and one chip in the law leading to another? Freedom of information is a law we should be proud of, but it needs to be robustly protected.