Sunday, 1 February 2015

Thumbing their noses at the useless FOI system

Jed Forrester has never met Roy Mackay, a resident of Sheep and Rugby Country who must be truly cheesed off with Scottish Borders Council and, for that matter Rosemary Agnew, the Scottish Information Commissioner.

A few days ago Jed's attention was drawn to a decision notice posted on the Commissioner's website which revealed the council had been "convicted" of a seventh breach of Freedom of Information regulations involving requests from Mr Mackay in barely eighteen months.

If you run a check on all of Ms Agnew's decisions in cases involving SBC you’ll discover that on five previous occasions to this one the council failed to respond to Mr Mackay within the permitted timescale of 20 working days. The dates of those decisions were June 28 2013, November 14 2013, March 6 2014, July 15 2014, and July 25 2014.

To compound the felony another decision dated March 20 2014 relates to three separate requests from Mr Mackay for information relating to appointments. SBC failed to respond to two of those requests. On the third occasion they provided information following a requirement for review. If I was Mr Mackay I'd be either spitting feathers or banging my head off the walls of council headquarters in sheer frustration.

This series of farces in which our local authority failed in its duty to answer reasonable requests for information graphically illustrates the utter contempt many public organisations display towards the much vaunted (by the Commissioner) FOI legislation.

It is a disgrace that Mr Mackay has had to seek the intervention of Ms Agnew every time SBC failed to respond to his questions to force the council into action. But it is an even bigger travesty that council officers responsible for fielding questions from members of the public they are supposed to serve know they will not be exposed to any form of punishment from Ms Agnew no matter how many times they flout the toothless FOI rules.

This is the local authority which seldom takes the wishes of local taxpayers into account when making decisions on the services it will deliver yet has the brass neck to commit millions of pounds of public money to that tapestry project few Borderers want to see implemented.

So they are hardly going to take notice of a flawed and worthless FOI system which is supposed to hold councils, health authorities and government departments to account but which instead protects those organisations from public scrutiny.

Do not be surprised to see Mr Mackay's name cropping up on the Commissioner's website again in the not too distant future should SBC choose to ignore yet another request for information. Anyone with seven "previous convictions" for the same offence against the same person would normally be facing a prison sentence or an ASBO at the very least.

But in the cosy world ruled by the Scottish Information Commissioner where penalties and sanctions are non-existent there's simply no chance of that happening. Any public authority which dislikes the FOI system or regards it as an inconvenient nuisance can continue to thumb its nose at requesters without fear of retribution.

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