No hiding place as plans to extend Freedom of Information unveiled

A HOST of organisations, including independent schools, charities and even the Faculty of Advocates could be forced to conform to the rules of the Freedom of Information Act, it emerged yesterday.

The Scottish Executive intends to contact hundreds of organisations currently exempt from the FoI regime, and then decide whether to bring them under the provisions of the act.

Margaret Curran, the minister for parliament, announced the findings of a review into the Freedom of Information Act yesterday. She said she would look closely at the fee structure but stressed she saw no need to introduce the sort of restrictions being considered by the government at Westminster.

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Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, wants a new charging regime for England, which would include the time spent by ministers and officials deciding whether to release the information requested as well as the cost of collating the information.

This could effectively give every official the go-ahead to delay and refuse any request that might prove embarrassing.

Lord Falconer also wants the cost cap of 600 - at which FoI requests can be rejected if they cost more than this to collate - to apply across all requests made by one individual or organisation in a particular period of time.

Ms Curran said she did not want to take this route, but would look at the detail of the fees regime before making a final decision.

Ms Curran did, however, announce that she would examine whether organisations currently exempt from the act might be forced to conform.

There has been controversy over the decision by Glasgow City Council to create a charitable trust, Culture and Sport Glasgow, to look after the council's leisure and sport facilities. As a charitable trust, it would not be covered by the FoI regime so nobody would have the right to demand information from it.

But sources close to Ms Curran indicated yesterday that she was prepared to change the law to include charitable trusts.

She will consult on a large list of organisations which were suggested by the public for inclusion in the FoI regime. Some - such as charities which receive public funds, private prisons, Network Rail, watchdogs and ombudsmen and Creative Scotland, the national arts body - are likely to be brought within the act.

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But there are other organisations which have a strong case to remain outside the act, such as independent schools and even newspapers, both of which are on the list.

Independent schools are charities but do not receive much public money and most of that is in rates relief. Newspapers and broadcasters are private companies and it would set an extraordinary precedent if media companies were forced to conform to the act while other private companies were allowed to remain on the outside.

Ms Curran said: "FoI provides ministers with a power to bring other organisations which are not Scottish public authorities within the coverage of the act.

"It has always been our intention to use this power when appropriate and proportionate.

"The review did not provide conclusive evidence to underpin any decisions on changes to the fees system.

"It's important FoI strikes a balance between encouraging use of the act by the public while not imposing an unreasonable burden on authorities. We will be looking in more detail at how the fee regulations are working in practice across Scotland."

A spokesman for Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, said he was pleased the Executive had not proposed any major changes to the fee regime, adding it "made sense" to keep the bodies covered by the act under review.