Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Quest for truth closed down by MSPs

Every public body in Scotland will have taken time out for a huge sigh of combined relief today after members of the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee snuffed out attempts aimed at forcing councils, health boards and government departments to tell the truth.

It may come as a surprise to many, but there is no obligation under the present Freedom of Information Scotland Act (FOISA) for your local authority to furnish you with an honest and accurate response when you submit a Freedom of Information request.

It has been claimed that up to 25 per cent of the 60,000 answers supplied by FOI compliant bodies in Scotland may be inaccurate as they attempt to conceal the truth or distort the facts. The ability to mislead the people they are supposed to serve renders the entire Freedom of Information system virtually worthless. And the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) - the so-called guardian of FOISA - has shown a consistent reluctance to prosecute authorities which flout the law by withholding information or by issuing false responses to FOI requests.

In a bid to have an "honesty" clause inserted into the legislation, a petition was lodged at the Parliament earlier this year. It attracted support from ordinary citizens, some of them telling the petitions committee that they had been misled after submitting FOI requests.

But unfortunately the petition also attracted a totally hostile reaction from the Scottish Government and the SIC. Both of these organisations dismissed the proposed change in the law as both unnecessary and unworkable. The committee was even invited by its own clerk to close the petition down in April before the members had heard a shred of evidence. Hardly an example of democracy at work.

Those authorities whose wrongdoings might be exposed by a more robust version of FOISA had too much to lose. They were never going to allow a sensible amendment or addition to the Act to eliminate the wriggle room which allows dishonest public officials to avoid disclosing accurate, and potentially embarrassing information.

The completely gutless performance of the SIC, who has failed to promote a single prosecution since Freedom of Information legislation was introduced a decade ago, was highlighted by one supporter of the petition, a Mr M.

In a written submission to the petitions committee Mr M described how he provided evidence to the SIC after being misled by his local authority in their handling of his FOI requests.

He added: "The SIC investigating officer left me with a clear impression that pursuing a case under
Section 65 of FOISA was virtually impossible, had never been done, and would require me
to have already provided him with firm supporting evidence of 'criminal intent to withhold'
on the part of one or more individuals."

But the saga did not end there. In a bizarre twist, Mr M was invited to meet the chief executive of the council concerned who "acknowledged the Council's responses to my requests for information could have been handled better and offered the Council's apology.

"I presented the Chief Executive with correspondence and records which made a sufficiently compelling case - of Council Officers' inescapable awareness of apparent non-compliance with statutory obligations (for which they were also responsible) and of them having misled me whilst failing to provide records (which they could hardly be unaware of) I'd requested under FOISA - that the Chief Executive undertook to commission an independent investigation into the matters arising from my freedom of information requests.I did not request that meeting nor did I suggest that she commission an independent investigation."

But even strong testimony like that failed to convince MSPs on the committee that there were serious issues surrounding Freedom of Information which needed to be addressed. They preferred the evidence of the SIC and of other civil servants who maintained the present flawed FOISA should be left alone.

At their meeting earlier this week the elected members closed ranks with the Establishment in deciding: "The Committee agreed to close the petition, under Rule 15.7, on the basis that the Scottish Government has stated it shares the view of the Scottish Information Commissioner that the changes being proposed are not needed and would be unworkable."

As the petitioner told the Committee: " At the moment any requester who has evidence of dishonesty or inaccuracy by a responding authority stands no chance of achieving redress given the complete failure or unwillingness by the Commissioner and the police to even submit reports with a view to prosecution. Regrettably, that sad state of affairs is set to continue."

No comments:

Post a Comment