By Carole Ewart,

Convener of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland

PEOPLE voted for a Scottish Parliament 20 years ago, for different reasons, but surely a unifying one would be that MSPs delivered on motions unanimously agreed. So, the failure of Holyrood to set up, define remits and announce timescales for the inquiries agreed in a motion of June 21 is hugely disappointing. As the motion was prompted by concerns about access to information rights and the Scottish Government’s failures in upholding Freedom of Information (FoI) law, the failure to act is significant.

The publication of a letter from the new Scottish Information Commissioner to the Minister for Parliamentary Business is a useful development, as it announced the second intervention in the last year by his office to ensure the Scottish Government complies with specific aspects of the law. However the narrow focus of the commissioner’s enforcement action cannot replace what the Parliament promised – an independent inquiry on general Scottish Government delivery of FoI laws and, separately, to undertake post legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FoISA). Despite the well-publicised attempt by the parliament to hold the executive to account, five months later the public, civil society and campaign groups still don’t know where to send their evidence of concerns to, as well as their proposals for reform.

Alarm bells start ringing at the end of the letter as the commissioner raises the need for “sufficient time to adequately prepare housing associations for their new duties” if brought under FoISA. This development, in a debate that has both raged and limped along since 2002, is a warning that the proposed implementation date in the last consultation of April 1, 2018, looks unlikely. Months have passed and the Scottish Government has declined to confirm timings which causes logistical problems. The commissioner’s office needs time to prepare the newly added bodies, and time is needed for training and preparation within each housing association. The commissioner’s formal interventions with the Scottish Government are necessary because the Scottish Government has not put its house in order, and is adding to his growing workload. At this time, it is essential that the Commissioner’s functions can be delivered for new and current bodies designated under FoISA as well as pro-actively assisting the public to assert and enforce their FoI rights.

A robust access to information law puts power with the requester to define the content and timing of the information requested. FoI rights were used by 74,213 people last year and for those who like to control information and power that scrutiny can be profoundly unwelcome, sometimes uncomfortable and occasionally embarrassing. Hardly surprising that there are moves to downgrade FoI rights and focus on the publication of data selected by government with all the disempowering and consequential impacts. It is not an either /or policy, both are important and interdependent.

Current tactics are also holding back progress: instead of being ambitious on how our FoI rights can be significantly improved, we are being driven to invest time and energy in saving what we secured in 2002 and “a little more”. Yet FoI is popular with voters, which should persuade politicians to act: polls show public awareness of FoI stands at 85 per cent, 93 per cent agree that FoI is important in making public bodies accountable for spending decisions and 79 per cent of the public agree that housing associations should be covered.

Let’s hope that MSPs agree soon to establish the two promised inquiries and that their reports make a positive impact in ensuring that Scotland’s Government, public sector and those delivering services of a public nature are open as well as accountable.