Scots IC slams higher charges plan and says upfront fee would undermine government

By Hamish Mackay

Scotland’s Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, has criticised leaked plans by the Scottish Executive to lump together requests from journalists and MSPs in order to increase charges.

His criticisms come out of a current review into the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, which came into force 14 months ago.

The new act has enabled Scottish journalists to publish a number of major stories — including the exposé of a taxi expenses row involving Scottish Tory leader David McLetchie, which directly led to his resignation.

When Scottish parliamentary business minister Margaret Curran launched the review, she warned of "misuse" by some journalists and businesses.

The Scottish Executive is believed to be keen to introduce upfront fees for requests and aggregating different requests, which could have the effect of pushing the costs of replying to more than £600, thereby enabling authorities to charge.

However, Dunion is against upfront fees, which would undermine the advances made towards open government, he argued.

"The implementation of an upfront fee in Scotland would radically transform the nature of the freedom of information in this country and would be incompatible with the primary legislation. I anticipate that any adjustments to current law and regulations would be limited, as we are barely one year into establishing the new culture of openness."

The Scottish Executive is expected to publish a report on the review in June.

The consultation and review comes against the backdrop of a call from influential backbench Labour MSP Des McNulty, convener of Holyrood’s finance committee, that Dunion’s post be wound down once the new regime has bedded down.

He believes the commissioner role should be included in a combined post of citizens’ rights commissioner and should also encompass the public services ombudsman’s remit.

McNulty said: "It’s easy to create a body, and they’re very hard to get rid of.

We need to keep asking if there is a better way to do the job more efficiently and economically.

"How much more public money do we want to spend on allowing people to pursue their hobby horses?"

The Scottish Parliament spent £139,570 last year answering questions submitted by journalists.

The most requests were made by the Sunday Herald, costing £32,598, with Scotland on Sunday in second place on £24,634.

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