Scottish FoI office receives double the expected appeals

By Damian Bates

The
public and the press have embraced Freedom of Information laws far more
than Scotland’s FoI “enforcer” imagined they would.

Kevin
Dunion, Scottish information commissioner, told the Society of Editors
(Scotland) annual seminar that his office had received more than double
the anticipated number of appeals for information to be released.

Dunion,
dubbed the “enforcer” by the Society of Editors’ executive director Bob
Satchwell, said he had been impressed by the level of interest in the
act since it came into force on 1 January.

Anecdotal evidence
suggested many of the 10,000 bodies covered by the legislation in
Scotland had received far higher requests for information than had been
projected.

Under FoI rules, anyone who has a request for
information rejected by a public body can appeal to the Scottish
information commissioner.

Dunion said: “We were projecting more than 500 appeals over the first year – there have been 380 appeals to date.

“The
assumption was that it would be used by troublemakers, journalists and
parliamentarians trying to make trouble for the sitting government.”

But it is members of the public who have been keen to pursue appeals for information, he told the seminar.

Dunion
said: “There has been a massive transformation in people’s awareness of
their rights. Fifty per cent of the appeals are coming from ordinary
members of the public.”

The next biggest group is
solicitorsacting on behalf of their clients, with up to 26 per cent of
the appeals. Only eight per cent of appeals come from the press,
possibly because by the time of the appeal the story has moved on, he
said.

Tim Ellis, head of the Freedom of Information Unit at the
Scottish Executive, said it was too early to make a definitive
judgement about the act but felt there were some useful pointers.

“There have been approximately 1,400 Freedom of Information requests since 1 January,” he said.

“The initial flurry in the first five months then dropped and levelled off, but has begun to grow again.”

He said it was the press that was top of the list for requests for information from the Executive.

Ellis
said: “Approximately 60 per cent of requests to the Executive have come
from the media – 54 different journalists have put in requests from 30
different newspapers. To that extent it’s clear that the Freedom of
Information Act has been a success.”

Carole Ewart of the Campaign
for Freedom of Information in Scotland said: “We recognise that it is
just the beginning of what is going to be a very long process.”

But
she feared people were being blocked in their pursuit of information:
“We have renamed it ‘The Reasons for Secrecy Act 2002’ because it shows
why bodies may withhold the information from the public. More than half
of the first 41 sections relate to why the public shouldn’t get
information.”

Freedom of Information Act
TEETHING TROUBLE
 
The Freedom of Information Act has helped
journalists uncover great stories from difficult public bodies – but
not without some problems, the editor of the Press Gazette’s Evening
Newspaper of the Year said.

Glasgow Evening Times editor Charles McGhee said the legislation had
proved vital for journalists as they sought to get to the truth.

But he told the seminar that the legislation had not been without its teething problems.

His
newspaper’s first request under the FoI Act hit a stonewall after
Greater Glasgow NHS Board said it had not received its initial request,
about a board meeting concerning a closure-threatened hospital. The
board took the full 20 days to respond to the re-submitted application
and then heavily censored the response.

“Just one paragraph survived the censorship,” McGhee said.

“It took two-and-a-half months to get the report – about the ‘Queen Mum’s’ maternity hospital – in the Evening Times.”

The
health board did eventually apologise over the censorship, McGhee told
the seminar. “That was a simple, but significant victory,” he said.

He
was also highly critical of the Scottish Executive’s ban on the release
of information relating to security at the G8 summit at Gleneagles this
summer.

“As well as big issues about the cost of security, it
meant it was difficult to get hold of any hard facts about contingency
measures hospitals were taking to deal with troublemakers or even
terrorist attacks,” he said. “That blanket ban only increased
speculation, some of which turned out to be urban myth.”

But he said both himself and his journalists felt the legislation was a useful tool. “We have uncovered some great stories. The level of information has been a surprise even to us.”

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