Take initiative to reform FOI law, Parliament will be told

The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoIS), will tomorrow (Wednesday) tell the Scottish Parliament’s Finance Committee that it should take the initiative and introduce further amendments to the Government’s Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill. These should plug what the CFoIS sees as an increasing loophole in the legislation’s coverage. Currently non-public bodies, such as private contractors, large voluntary organisations, housing associations and arms-length organisations (ALEOs) set up by public authorities are often not covered by the law when they are providing public services.

Carole Ewart, Co-convener of the CFoIS will tell the Committee:
“In Scotland we should focus on whether people’s right to know is as effective in 2012, as it was in 2002 when the law was passed, and 2005 when it came into force. Clearly the answer is No. Private companies and other third-party bodies are increasingly being used by the public sector to deliver public services. There are over 130 arms-length organisations in Scotland today. If these bodies are not covered by Freedom of Information (FoI) law, then we are all effectively debarred from asking them how they spend our money.”

This loophole has been concerning practitioners for some time. The Scottish Information Commissioner has argued strongly for extended coverage, and commissioned an opinion poll in 2011* that showed 83% of people support extending FoI coverage to private companies who build and maintain schools and hospitals, and 82% support extension to housing associations. The previous government even began to introduce extended coverage in the previous parliament, but abandoned it when the groups to be covered objected.

Carole Ewart says:
“It cannot be acceptable that third-party organisations that provide our services have a veto over what they will or won’t tell us about how they use our money. The Scottish Government say that this Bill is intended to introduce much needed reforms to the law. There is no reform more needed than this. Even at this stage we call on the Government to introduce the required amendments, and if they won’t, the Committee should take it on board themselves. Broadening the coverage also lets these other organisations shoulder their share of the responsibility of answering the public’s questions.”

In addition the CFoIS is asking the Committee to reject a suggested new clause. The Government want to introduce a new absolute exemption on communications with the monarch or her heirs. Carole Ewart will say:
“This straightforward lift of Westminster legislation sends entirely the wrong message about the Government’s transparency, and would create a further set of anomalies. It should be rejected.”

The CFoIS will be giving evidence on Wednesday at 09.30 along with the Committee for Ethical Standards in Public Life. Also giving evidence will be Nicola Sturgeon MSP, whose new role gives her the Government responsibility for Freedom of Information, and Rosemary Agnew, the Scottish Information Commissioner.

For Further Information please contact:

Carole Ewart (Co-Convener – Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland)
or Chris Bartter (Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland) 07715 583 729

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