FoI in Scotland - so far so good

The tale of the fall of David McLetchie, which began in the Sunday Herald, is just one of a number of news stories which have emerged this year thanks to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act. The Sunday Times Scotland was also able to publish unprecedented information about how primary schools are under-performing in Scotland and the Press And Journal revealed in June that health spending on methadone in the northeast has risen 60% in the past five years.

Last week newspapers were busy reporting on MSPs’ expenses after the Scottish Parliament published 700 pages of information, compared to 12 pages last year. This anticipated future requests for such information.

Sunday Herald Scottish Political Editor Paul Hutcheon, who wrote the McLetchie story and has asked more FoI questions than any other journalist during the year, said: “To use a golfing analogy, the act gives you an extra club in the bag. It allows you access to information that public bodies would never have given you in a million years.”

But public authorities have 20 working days to answer questions, a further 20 working days to answer if you appeal against their decision, and further appeals to the Scottish Information Commissioner’s office can take months.

Last Monday the Parliamentary Business Minister, Margaret Curran, announced plans to review the Scottish legislation. There are fears that ministers will limit the Act by making individuals pay for the information. The Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, has voiced concerns about the review: "The review will take us down the same road as Ireland, which introduced liberal information laws, only to restrict them shortly after. Changes brought to the legislation and fee structures had a huge impact on usage in that country. The number of requests has basically fallen off a cliff.”

Although the prospect of introducing upfront fees has only been mentioned in passing, Dunion said: “I would be extremely unhappy if that was what we now moved to. In Ireland you now have to pay money even if the authority hasn’t got the information.”

He added that that he has only heard 78 appeals so far and many exemptions have not yet been tested. He pointed to his November decision concerning solicitors MacRoberts who sent around 720 FoI requests to the ferry group Caledonian MacBrayne in one day. The solicitors' right to information was rejected because the request was held to be vexatious. This also sends a clear signal to journalists who may very well fall into the same trap in future.

Revelling in new-found freedom … for now (Sunday Herald, 18 December 2005)

Decision 063/2005 Macroberts and Caledonian MacBrayne Limited - Information requests refused on the ground that the requests were vexatious (Scottish Information Commissioner's website)