Saturday, 6 May 2017

FAKE NEWS - if only it wasn't

DOUG COLLIE indulges in some wishful thinking

Hundreds of new jobs will be created in Scotland following claims that the Scottish Government is to set up a Commissioner For Secrecy to force public bodies to become more transparent.

Under a reversal of the Freedom of Information system local councils, health boards, government departments and other agencies funded by taxpayers would have to apply to the Scottish Commissioner For Secrecy [SCFS] if they wanted to keep information from public consumption and scrutiny.

Details of this unusual initiative have been leaked to Not Just Sheep & Rugby by a reliable source who wished to remain anonymous. Ironically, had the new regime been in place he would have had to seek permission to conceal his identity.

It has been estimated there would be thousands if not tens of thousands of requests each year from the public sector to keep reports, minutes, records of private meetings and inter-departmental emails hidden away. That is why the SCFS will need to be a massive organisation with an army of staff and tens of millions of pounds at its disposal to process a flood of cases.

Our source told us: "Wouldn't it be great if the boot was on the other foot, and instead of having to request information, private citizens were entitled to it unless the organisation concerned applied for and received an exemption from the Commissioner?"

There have been examples since the FOI system was introduced of authorities withholding material from requesters when refusal to divulge could not be justified. Many cannot understand why information should not be on public display as a matter of course. Why should an organisation which gets its money from long suffering citizens have the power to conduct business in private at the drop of a hat?

Indeed, only recently we reported on the Scottish Information Commissioner's investigation into secrecy at Scottish Borders Council following the collapse of a £80 million waste management contract and the loss of millions of pounds, including £2.4 million from the public purse.

When asked for copies of documents held in its files, SBC refused on grounds of commercial confidentiality. They argued that releasing the information would damage their contractor's business. It did not matter that the company in question was a debt-ridden failure incapable of delivering the project on both financial and technical grounds.

But much of the stuff the council was unwilling to produce - according to the Commissioner - did not even relate to the contractor but concerned the local authority's own deliberations and decision making. An apparent cover up to protect those responsible for the waste contract disaster?

In other words the requested material should never have been withheld.

Nevertheless, in a bizarre and seemingly misleading statement after the decision was issued SBC certainly did not concede that it had flouted Freedom of Information regulations.

The statement claimed: "The determination that the relevant information is no longer confidential means the council can now release that information without breaching its contractual obligations".

Laughable and ridiculous is how that assertion has been described by a good few who have read it.

Perhaps all this kind of nonsense will end when the SCFS is launched some time soon .However it seems highly likely that squads of specialist lawyers will be engaged to fight each authority's corner, and that will be a considerable drain on resources.

A spokesman for the Association of Really Secretive Entities [ARSE] said in a confidential statement: "-------------!".

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