Scottish Executive 'backing off' FoI charges

By Hamish Mackay

The Scottish Executive is believed to be backing away from
charging upfront fees for freedom of information (FOI) requests.

According to Paul Hutcheon, Scottish political editor of the
Sunday Herald, Margaret Curran, the minister for parliamentary
business, is “not persuaded” by calls to bill the public for asking
questions about schools, hospitals and other public services.

Last month Hutcheon won both journalist of the year
and political journalist of the year at the Scottish Press Awards in
recognition of his year-long investigation, greatly helped by the FOI
Act, which led to the resignation of Scottish Tory leader David
McLetchie after an expenses row.

A range of councils, universities and quangos have demanded the
Executive reform a system they claim is unfairly burdensome. But Curran
does not believe importing the so-called “Irish model” of FOI, where
public bodies can charge €15 (£10) per request, would improve the
controversial legislation.

Hutcheon told Sunday Herald readers: “The FOI Act …has angered
officials, who believe the legislation has resulted in staff wasting
time answering awkward questions by journalists and lawyers.

“These concerns led the Executive to launch a review of the system.
Sources have suggested that members of the public, who can currently
ask for information free of charge, may in future be billed for making
requests.

“However, Curran believes Irish-style fees could deter citizens from accessing vital data about public services.”

Other reforms under consideration include charging for reviews of
decisions to withhold information, as well as aggregating the costs of
multiple requests from a single individual.

At present, bodies can turn down any request that would cost more than
£600 Lowering this threshold is an option that Curran is considering.

She told Hutcheon: “My big issue is to make it work for the ordinary citizen – not for professionals. I have asked officials to look at models that can get us there.”

Hutcheon claims Curran’s remarks come against a backdrop of mounting
frustration among public bodies at what they see as an infuriating
piece of legislation.

The consultation on FOI, which closed recently, gathered many responses from organisations demanding a clampdown.

Edinburgh City Council’s submission said FOI had allowed
journalists to get “free stories” and businesses commercial
information. Officials supported upfront fees for requests , as well as
demanding extra time to respond to questions.

Glasgow City Council backed changes that would reduce
disclosures under the act, such as reducing the £600 threshold to £400
and increasing the staff costs from £15 per hour to £25.

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