Scottish Government May Extend Coverage Of The Freedom Of Information Act

Minister for Parliamentary Business Bruce Crawford today confirmed the Scottish Government will consult on whether to extend the Freedom of Information Act for the first time to cover a wider range of bodies who deliver public services in Scotland.

Organisations that will be considered are contractors who build and maintain schools, hospitals and roads; private prison operators; leisure, sport and cultural trusts set up by local authorities; Glasgow Housing Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland.

Speaking at the 2009 Holyrood Freedom of Information Conference in Edinburgh, Mr Crawford said:

"The Scottish Government is committed to the principles that underpin Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. These principles of openness and transparency are essential parts of open democratic government.

"Responses to a discussion paper which looked at the options for extending coverage of the FOI Act beyond the public sector supported the principle of greater openness. I now intend to formally consult with a range of organisations about whether it is appropriate for them to be covered by FOI.

"It is important that organisations who deliver key public services for the people of Scotland operate transparently so the public can be reassured we are getting high quality services and value for money. I am also sympathetic to the view that people should be able to 'follow' the expenditure of public money through their access to information, in particular in relation to PFI/PPP contracts which tend to be high value and long term.

"Given the global economic downturn, some sectors of the economy are under particular strain and recent events are having a wide-ranging impact on both private and public sector bodies. A key part of the consultation will be our examination of the costs and burdens associated with any extension of coverage and any risks to business efficiency and competitiveness that flow from that. The Government is committed to increasing sustainable economic growth and will only introduce legislation that is measured and proportionate.

"We will listen to organisations who raise concerns about being able to meet the requirements of FOI."

Mr Crawford continued:
"As a further measure to improve transparency across Scotland's public sector, I am today also launching a revised Code of Practice which provides guidance to public authorities in meeting their duties under Freedom of Information. This specifies the Scottish Government's clear expectations about disclosing contractual information and proactively publishing documents."

The organisations to be consulted on extending the FOI Act to cover are:
Local authority trusts and bodies with responsibility for providing leisure, sport and cultural services. Many local authorities have outsourced these important functions to such trusts and bodies. An unintended consequence is that the public lose their rights to access information about those services from the local authority itself. These organisations deliver services of major public benefit, and receive significant public money.

Private prison operators running Addiewell and Kilmarnock prisons, and with the private contractor providing prisoner escort services. These organisations provide services normally provided centrally by Government, and coverage would put them on the same footing as their public sector equivalents.

Glasgow Housing Association. Glasgow Housing Association is unique in its scale and public profile and the level of interest that it attracts. In principle the Government therefore considers that there are strong grounds for its coverage.

Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland. The Association is the collective organisation of senior police from the eight forces across Scotland. It oversees and coordinates the direction and development of the Scottish police services. Its members are all public servants and it receives significant public funding.

Private contractors who build and maintain schools and hospitals, and those who operate and maintain trunk roads across Scotland. These are key areas of public service which are often delivered under private contract. These contractors form a large and diverse group and we will have to consider the appropriateness of coverage in detail, which may well be on a case by case basis.

The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 encourages the development of a more open culture across the public sector by providing a statutory right of access to information held by some 10,000 Scottish public authorities.

The coverage of the Act can be extended to bodies which appear to the Scottish Ministers to be exercising functions of a public nature and to contractors who provide services that are a function of a public authority. This is done by an order made under powers in section 5 of the Act. Before making any such order Scottish Ministers must consult with the proposed bodies themselves. The power to extend coverage under section 5 has not yet been used.

The Scottish Government will also be exploring the options for ensuring that the social landlord sector as a whole increases its transparency and accountability through the proposed Housing (Scotland) Bill.

The consultation process will commence in spring 2010.

egovMonitor (9 December 2009)

See also:
Mixed reception for new move to extend 'right to know' to firms (The Scotsman, 10 December 2009)