The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFOIinS) said it was deeply disappointed by yesterday’s announcement by the Scottish Government that it was shelving plans to make private contractors subject to Scotland’s Freedom of Information Act. The government cited opposition from the contractors and their representative bodies as a key factor behind their decision. It had been proposing to extend the Act during the current Parliamentary session.
Carole Ewart, co-convenor of Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland said:
“We are deeply disappointed that the Government has reversed its position on extending the Act because of opposition from the private sector bodies themselves. It would have been obvious to ministers before making these proposals that the contractors did not want to be covered, and we are amazed that merely because they have now said they don’t like the idea the government has shelved it. If FOI was only applied to bodies that volunteered to be covered we wouldn’t have a Freedom of Information Act in Scotland at all.”
In December 2009 the Scottish Government announced that it was considering extending the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (FOISA) to: contractors who build and maintain hospitals and schools, who operate and maintain trunk roads under the PFI Initiative or who run privately managed prisons or provide prison escort services. Only contracts above certain values would be covered. Trusts running local authority sports, leisure and cultural facilities were also being considered for inclusion along with the Glasgow Housing Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland. However, following a consultation exercise, the government yesterday announced that the proposals would not now proceed. It said that a majority of the bodies concerned had opposed being brought under the Act, although there was “near universal support” from everyone else who had commented on the proposals.
The Scottish Government also said that there was “minimal evidence” of people having difficulty obtaining information about the private contracts, for example on road building. But the Campaign pointed out that only two weeks ago the Scottish Information Commissioner ruled that information about the cost of utility contracts on the Edinburgh Trams Project could not be disclosed because the information had been provided by the contractors in confidence to tie Ltd, the public body responsible for the project. (Decision 006/2011 Mr Jim Cooney and tie Limited, Value of tie contracts, 11 January 2011).
Plans to bring the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland under the Act are also now not proceeding, after ACPOS questioned the value of the move. The Campaign pointed out that the equivalent body in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – ACPO – had volunteered be brought under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act. The Westminster government confirmed only two weeks ago that ACPO would be covered by the UK Act, a decision originally announced by the last Labour government.
Ms Ewart said “the Scottish public will now have less information about its policing than the public in the rest of the United Kingdom.” She added: “The Westminster government is also proposing to extend the UK FOI Act to other bodies including the Local Government Association, the NHS Confederation, the Law Society and the Bar Council – but there are no moves to bring their Scottish counterparts under Scotland’s FOI Act. Scotland is now falling behind England in FOI terms. When the legislation was originally passed, the Scottish Act was widely regarded as better than that which applied across the rest of the UK.”
The Scottish Government has said that an extension of the Act may be reconsidered in the next Parliamentary session, but only after the FOI Act itself has been amended. The government yesterday announced two measures to improve the Act, which the Campaign welcomed. Some kinds of government records will be released after 15 years instead of 30 years. And the Act will be changed to make it easier to prosecute authorities which deliberately shred records to prevent their disclosure.
However, the government announced that other changes to “correct deficiencies in the Act” were also being considered. The Campaign expressed concern that this could lead to greater charges for information, or to changes that would make it easier for authorities to refuse requests on cost grounds.
The Scottish Government’s announcement on 26.1.11 that it is shelving proposals to extend FOISA can be found at:http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2011/01/26154714.
The Scottish Government’s proposals to extend FOISA are available at:
http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/319057/0101913.pdf (consultation document)
http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2009/12/08113806 (news release)
The Scottish Government’s formal response to the consultation on extending the scope of FOISA can be found at:http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/175356/0112479.pdf
The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland’s response to the above consultation can be found at:http://www.cfoi.org.uk/pdf/CFOIinSS5response2010.pdf
Carole Ewart, co-convenor, Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland: (0141) 550 7519
Campaign for Freedom of Information, London office 0207 490 3958