SCOTLAND should be proud of its legislation on freedom of information. When it was introduced 16 years ago, it was regarded as one of the strongest laws on access to information anywhere in the world. The Scottish Government also said it was committed to being the most open government ever, and over the years the legislation has helped expose the truth on everything from the closure of schools to hospital-acquired infections.

However, ensuring open and accessible government is about much more than passing a law and in the 16 years that the legislation has been in operation, there have been some worrying developments suggesting that a reluctance to openness and transparency among some public bodies continues. Some organisations have been caught dragging their feet or wrongly informing the public that they do not hold data when in fact they do have the information. There has also been concern that the outsourcing of public services to private organisations has helped to circumnavigate the law.

The latest concerns centre on the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). The agency and Scottish ministers have repeatedly failed to comply with the freedom of information legislation in recent months by wrongly withholding documents or taking too long to answer public requests. One organisation, Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, has appealed six cases to the Scottish Information Commissioner and, significantly, has won them all.

No one doubts that for public bodies that are often underfunded and understaffed, FOI requests can be time-consuming and an extra burden. But there is also a reasonable suspicion that some organisations are delaying their responses deliberately so that by the time the information is made public, it is no longer relevant. Sadly, they know they can do this because there is no realistic sanction that the information commissioner can impose.

The information commissioner himself has recently suggested a way forward. Daren Fitzhenry says three-quarters of those who make FOI requests receive some or all of the information they ask for, but he also says that the growing claims of non-compliance mean there should be a review of the 16-year-old law to ensure it is still robust. “I think if we don’t look at the criticisms being levied and seek to improve the system,” he says, “then the system will get worse and it will get out of touch.”

The Government should now act on what Mr Fitzhenry has said. Every public body should be responding to FOI requests accurately and timeously (in other words, within 20 days), but a review is also required to ensure that, in the face of so many complaints, the law is still fit for purpose. Freedom of information is a law we should be proud of, but it needs to be robustly protected.