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Loophole in new law allows trust to avoid public scrutiny

Research carried out at Strathclyde University has uncovered a loophole in the Scottish Government’s 2013 extension of the Freedom of Information Act, says the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoIS).

Calum Liddle, a PhD researcher at the university and a member of the CFoIS, sent a series of questions to 25 newly covered leisure and culture arms length bodies set up by many local councils, to research how prepared they were for their new legal duty. 25% of them failed to respond on time and more than a quarter had no publication scheme, which describes the information a public authority publishes, in place – a legal requirement.

However, one trust refused to answer at all, and when reported to the Scottish Information Commissioner, the regulator checked that because of the way the legal order introducing the extension had been framed, the trust – Garthdee Alpine Sports in Aberdeen – wasn’t covered.

Calum said: “It seems that the order specifically refers to trusts established by one or more local authorities, Garthdee was established by Aberdeen City Council, two universities and two other bodies. Despite the fact that both the universities and the council are themselves covered by the act and they provide the bulk of the funding from public funds, it seems that by joining together they have effectively barred people from getting information from the trust!”

Other leisure trusts that failed to respond to the researcher’s requests inside the legal limit of 20 days also included Perth & Kinross Sports Council, Renfrewshire Leisure, the Pickaquoy Centre in Orkney, and Live Active Leisure in Perth. The latter two in fact didn’t respond until the Commissioner contacted them following Mr Liddle’s complaint – after 99 and 94 days.

Perth & Kinross Sports Council. Pickaquoy, the Laidlaw Centre (Scottish Borders), the Galleon Leisure Centre in East Ayrshire, and the Brunton Theatre Trust (East Lothian Council), all had no publication scheme, nor any reference to Freedom of Information on their websites.

Chris Bartter – Spokesperson for the CFoIS said:
“The problems and loopholes thrown up by this research show why we should change our approach to FOI. We must ensure ALL public services are covered – no matter who delivers them, Public or private sector, partnerships or voluntary bodies. Let’s hope this is addressed when the Scottish Government issues its next amendment consultation soon.”

Calum Liddle’s research will shortly be published in the Journal of Information and Communications Technology Law.

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