Sunday Herald and Scottish Executive in 'perverse' FoI row

The Scottish Executive has denied claims by the country’s Information Commissioner that it behaved in an “unreasonable and perverse” manner when dealing with requests from journalists made under the Freedom of Information Act.

In a letter sent last year to the Executive’s permanent secretary, Sir John Elvidge, published by the Sunday Herald, Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion criticised the Executive’s decision to reject two requests from the paper’s environment editor Rob Edwards.

Edwards’ requests were made in October 2005 and concerned nuclear waste disposal body Nirex.

He asked for “copies of the information held by the Executive on Nirex’s plans for nuclear waste disposal”, but was told that no such information was available and appealed against the decision.

On appeal, the Information Commissioner ruled that that the Executive misinterpreted the request to refer only to Nirex’s plans — and not to information related to them such as meetings and discussions.

The Sunday Herald is still waiting for the result of appeal that will decide whether the information should be released.

In a letter, Dunion said it was “extremely worrying” that the Executive might be treating other requesters in the same way and warned that such behaviour could “lead to the perception of bureaucratic barriers to public access to information”.

In December Richard Wakeford, chief executive of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, wrote back to say he felt the Executive had been entirely right to reject the requests.

He also criticised Dunion’s use of the word “perverse”, claiming it was a “strong and emotive adjective”.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Executive said: “Our position is what is in Richard Wakeford’s letter. We treat every FoI request in the same way.

“We do update advice to staff on FoI from time to time, but we have not done so because of this.” Freedom of information laws in Scotland will not be affected by the British Government’s plans to restrict the use of the FoI Act in England and Wales, but the Executive is currently carrying out a review of its version of the law.

Editor Richard Walker told Press Gazette that he and other Scottish editors would be worried if similar proposals were put forward.

“Editors would be worried if we would have to pay, or if there was aggregation as in the proposals for England and Wales, but so far there have been no such proposals and we understand there will be none.

“We have made great use of the Act and generally we get the information we are looking for.

“I would say that the end result of some of these requests has been to save Dunion: Executive said he should not have used the word “perverse” taxpayers’ money.”

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