Sunday, 9 November 2014

Tenth anniversary of FOI...nothing to celebrate

Ten years after the introduction of Freedom of Information legislation, an Act of Parliament allegedly devised to make public authorities more accountable, we are told that Scottish Borders Council is putting "new procedures" in place to ensure requests are handled more efficiently. Probably not before time, given the council's abysmal track record in the field of FOI.

Time after time SBC has failed to respond to requesters within the 20 working days allowed, and like most other councils, health boards and Scottish Government departments, our local authority frequently uses the long list of exclusions available within the confines of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (FOISA) to keep sensitive or embarrassing stuff under wraps.

At the same time council leader David Parker complains that the 1,000 requests his officials receive each year represent a "significant burden" on council resources. Apparently more staff are being taken on to resolve the problems within the FOI system, and this will undoubtedly ramp up costs still further.

Perhaps our councillors could consider a cheaper option....publish more information and statistics as a matter of routine without having to be asked.

Why should publicly funded bodies only have to release information after receiving a specific request? Unless your question is tightly and precisely worded they usually manage to avoid telling the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Let's have regular disclosures of credit card spending by senior officials, numbers of assaults on teachers and other council staff, and a host of other topics which regularly feature in FOI requests. That should cut the workload on hard-pressed administrative staff.

SBC's Information Management Team (IMT) is being transferred to the council's legal services department which means qualified lawyers will scrutinise FOI requests from now on. Is that likely to increase the flow of information when far too much council business is already conducted in private?

Meanwhile, according to the Scottish Information Commissioner's (SIC) website, a conference to "celebrate" the tenth anniversary of FOI will be held in Edinburgh next month. Speakers will include First Minister-in-Waiting Nicola Sturgeon, Lord Jim Wallace, and the Commissioner Rosemary Agnew.

It is to be hoped the conference does not issue a communique declaring that FOI has been an unqualified success. For given the number of failures by authorities to abide by the rules, and the equally depressing failure of the SIC to prosecute or even pursue the miscreants, the only people with anything to shout about are the public officials who enjoy a relative level of protection under FOISA.

Commissioner Agnew recently expressed her concern at the growing number of FOI requests which are not attracting responses within the statutory time even though the 20 working days allowed appears to be more than generous.

Unfortunately none of the authorities which break the law are ever hauled over the coals. So there is no incentive for these cavalier organisations to get their acts together and respond to the council taxpayers who keep them in business. Instead of "celebrating", the forthcoming conference would serve a more useful purpose if it considered how FOI might be improved for the benefit of the general public.

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