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FOI campaign: defending the public’s right to know about private companies

Chris Bartter from the Campaign for freedom of information in Scotland explains the campaign's fight to ensure that people can use freedom of information legislation to ask questions about third-party organisations:

Among Scots of all political persuasions, the received wisdom is that the Scottish Freedom of Information Act (FOISA), is stronger and has been applied more consistently than the UK Act.

So it seems unlikely that a Scottish Government run by the SNP would continue the policy of previous administrations and preside over a steady erosion of that Act, failing to take straightforward action to prevent that.

It seems still less likely that they would wish to weaken its provisions by importing wholesale a new absolute exemption from its Westminster cousin.

Since the implementation of FOISA in 2005, successive governments and public authorities (covered by FOISA) have gradually outsourced a variety of services to private, voluntary sector and other bodies, where the writ of FOISA ceases to run.

From the transfer of housing to Housing Associations, through the PFI/PPP of many schools, hospitals and water and sewerage plants (water is still publicly-run in Scotland), the outright privatisation of some public services like prisons and trunk road maintenance contracts, to the creation of over 130 arms-length organisations by public authorities, a range of public services is being removed from public enquiry.

This has not only concerned campaigners for freedom of information (FOI), but also the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) who enforces FOISA.

The Scottish public too, in an opinion poll commissioned by the SIC, made it clear what they thought. Over 80% said that such bodies need to be brought under the net of freedom of information.

It seemed, at first, to also concern the (previous) SNP Government, who went through extensive consultation on extending the law (as can be done) to re-include some of these services.

That consultation confirmed the public support for this fundamental public right, so when the extension was dropped, apparently at the behest of the bodies who were planned to be designated, it caused concern. But the election of a new majority SNP government, committed to ‘Six Principles of Freedom of Information’ gave hope, especially when they announced they were to introduce an Amendment Bill to address weaknesses in the Act.

However, the Amendment Bill, was a damp squib.

Not only did it not contain, nor was it accompanied by, any extension of coverage but it also included a new ‘absolute exemption’!

Absolute exemptions are anathema to FOI campaigners, as they allow no consideration of public interest whatsoever. This one, ironically lifted wholesale from an amendment to the UK FOI Act, bans queries about communications with the Monarch, her heir, or the second in line to the throne!

Many in Scotland have objected to these FOI restrictions.

Led by the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoIS), and backed by bodies like the STUC, UNISON and the Scottish Human Rights Consortium, they are asking for extension of the Act’s coverage to be included by further amendment of the Bill, and for the ‘Royal exemption’ to be dropped.

As the CFoIS’s Carole Ewart put it last week in her evidence to the Parliamentary Committee scrutinising the Bill:

“It cannot be acceptable that third-party organisations that provide our services have a veto over what they will or won’t tell us about how they use our money. The Scottish Government say that this Bill is intended to introduce much needed reforms to the law. There is no reform more needed than this.”

International Right to Know day
The next step in the campaign is a public film event to mark International Right to Know Day on 28 September.

The CFoIS is organising a showing of the classic All the President’s Men at Glasgow Film Theatre. This is at 2.50pm and the screening will be followed by a debate chaired by Rosalind McInnes, solicitor for BBC Scotland, and speakers from UNISON and CFoIS. Free tickets are available from the GFT box office on the day.

Contact the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland for more information, or Chris Bartter on 07715 583 729.

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