Accountability and transparency are even more important during this battle to help the public and workers be safe. Access to information can lead to better informed and practical decisions, which are reasonable and proportionate in the all the circumstances. Therefore CFoIS has written to all MSPs to make four asks of them:
- You require regular reports from Ministers on backlogs to FoI requests accumulating in the public bodies for which they are responsible across Scotland, and in particular health boards and local authorities, especially across health and social care.
- You seek assurances from Ministers that the Current Model Publication Scheme, required under FoISA, is still being complied with in the sectors which they fund and have responsibility for.
- You seek new pro-active information disclosure from the Scottish Government and establish a quality assurance methodology which informs the type and timing of the information disclosed.
- You request regular reports from the Scottish Information Commissioner on regulatory practice, including analysis of quarterly returns from Scotland’s 10,000 public bodies.
Here is the letter, which includes more detail, and please raise the issue directly with your MSP.
The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FoISA) requires over 10,000 public sector bodies in Scotland to answer information requests within 20 working days. ‘Working’ days and a definite timeline have led to much chat about the impact of COVID-19 on FoI rights. Whilst public services are and will continue to be under great pressure, a proportionate and reasonable response is needed as many staff are working from home successfully and some do so on a routine basis. CFoIS is relieved that such working arrangements have been established where possible to keep staff safe and prevent the virus spreading.
So it is a question of balance and the Scottish Information Commissioner’s Office (OSIC) has issued new guidance which recognises that ‘many organisations will be facing unprecedented pressures – for example as a result of staff absences, office closures, or a significant increase in demand for services, such as healthcare.’ Therefore, it has “written to public bodies to tell them that we’ll be sympathetic to unavoidable failures to meet FOI timescales which are caused by Covid-19.’ So when designated public bodies are unable to meet the 20 working day rule, the key test will be on ‘unavoidable’. Of course there are other lawful reasons set out in FoISA as to why the 20 working day rule may be extended.
OSIC also ‘suggests that requesters think about the impact of COVID-19 when making a request. Your information rights remain vitally important, and the FOI principles of openness, transparency and accountability will play an essential role in supporting public trust at this difficult time.’ It has information for requestors to narrow and speed up requests at tips for requesters page. The full news release is available here.
FoISA provides for the pro-active publication of information to avoid the need for requests and CFoIS believes that should continue where possible and on some matters is really important to build trust and avoid fake news!
Please also go to the website of the UK Information Commissioner for commentary and guidance on the UK FoI Act 2000 which covers reserved matters in Scotland such as broadcasting, industry and the armed services.
At a global level, some Governments are reneging on freedom of information duties generating concern that rights are being curtailed, weakened and abandoned as part of a wider drive to stop transparency and accountability at a critical time. Further information is available here.