FoI database to expose awkward squad

PUBLIC bodies that fail to deal properly with Freedom of Information requests are to be exposed in a new national database which will allow taxpayers to rate their commitment to openness, Scotland’s Information Commissioner has revealed.
Rosemary Agnew in New Register House in Edinburgh. Picture: Julie BullRosemary Agnew in New Register House in Edinburgh. Picture: Julie Bull
Rosemary Agnew in New Register House in Edinburgh. Picture: Julie Bull

Next month Rosemary Agnew will publish Scotland’s first audit of Freedom of Information (FoI) performance amid concerns that some public authorities do not take their obligation to provide transparent information seriously enough.

In an interview with Scotland on Sunday, Agnew also said that she is looking at extending FoI legislation so that it covers non-public sector bodies such as energy companies, financial institutions and transport companies.

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Agnew indicated she was becoming frustrated by the number of FoI requests that are thwarted because an organisation fails to respond to them within the recommended 20 days.

On the eve of the launch of her first annual report, Agnew said that the number of individuals who had appealed to her because a FoI request had not been dealt with satisfactorily was “unreasonably high”.

Agnew said that some public authorities were good at responding to FoI requests promptly. But there were others who risked damaging their reputation by not doing so. “This failure to respond is not just a technical breach of FoI law, it is actually denying somebody a statutory right, a statutory right parliament has seen fit to put into legislation. I just think it is disrespectful,” Agnew said.

FoI legislation was introduced in Scotland in a 2002 act, which enabled citizens to receive information from publicly funded bodies. Members of the public can appeal to the Information Commissioner if they feel that their request has not been dealt with adequately.

Previous commissioners’ reports have suggested that some organisations are more likely to be appealed than ­others.

Last year, for example, the Scottish Government accounted for 28 per cent of all appeals. That compared with 45 per cent of appeals against local government and 5 per cent against the police.

Agnew has called for all public bodies subject to FoI to submit details of requests it handles to her through the Information Commissioner’s website. Next month she will publish a database outlining how each body has dealt with requests over the last quarter.

So far 90 per cent of the public bodies have responded to the initiative.

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Agnew said: “The idea behind this is to try to create a national data set for Scotland for anyone who wants to use it. So if an academic wants to use it, if a citizen wants to see what their authority is doing. Or if one public authority wants to benchmark with another.

“It is statistical data. How many requests were made? How many responses missed the 20-day deadline? What kind of exemptions were applied to withhold information? How many requests released all the information asked for? It wouldn’t give all the details of each request, but what it will give us for the first time is an indication of just how much FoI activity there is across Scotland.”

She added: “My only word of caution is because this is the first time, what we can’t say with 100 per cent certainty is how robust the data is. We have never had a chance to look at it across the board. The most significant step is putting it in place.”

As part of her drive to make Scotland a more open country, Agnew also said she was looking at extending the type of bodies that fall under FoI legislation. At the moment it is largely limited to those that are publicly funded.

“I have just come back from a conference of international information commissioners and a lot of the debate about transparency was about the extension of information laws to other non-public sector organisations, whose services could be seen as public functions,” Agnew said.

“So for example energy, transport or even finance. It would be banks, insurance. We have tended to focus on public sector functions as they exist rather than think about the wider context of what would it mean for transparency.”

She added: “We are in our early days of looking at this, but it is something that is in our programme for the next year.”