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Freedom of Information — Authorities must be “open” 2004-05-11

Posted by clype in Intolerance, Scotland.
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The introduction of Scotland’s Freedom of Information Act requires public authorities to rethink their attitudes to the disclosure of information. Education and training are essential weapons in their armoury to achieve compliance, argues William Malcolm, of Masons Solicitors’ Glasgow office.

  • In less than nine months, the right of access to information under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 will be a reality. The aim of the act is to increase the accountability of Scotland’s public services by allowing people greater access to recorded information held by those authorities.

The introduction of this right represents a shift in government’s approach to access to public information. The new assumption is that information should be public knowledge unless there is a compelling reason for keeping it private. Tavish Scott, the minister responsible, has said:

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‘The introduction of freedom of information in Scotland is a big step towards a more open and responsive public sector and a more empowered and participative civic society’.

These are ambitious words at a time when interest in the democratic process has suffered a steady decline.

Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, is facing that challenge head on. Recognising that access rights are of no value unless they are used by the public, his office is planning a major public-awareness campaign, which is designed to educate the public about their rights under the Freedom of Information Act. Mr.Dunion commented:

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‘Scottish public authorities will have to upgrade, and in some cases completely overhaul the way in which they hold information and provide it to the public’.

He has also made it clear that he will not shrink from enforcing these aims. Authorities which are not prepared may find themselves squeezed between a demanding public and a tough commissioner.

It would be unfair, however, to suggest that the Commissioner will be simply looking for scalps come January 2005.

His office makes clear that they would prefer authorities to comply without requiring enforcement, and are currently working on assisting public authorities to ensure that public-sector organisations, including local authorities, the NHS, colleges and universities, the police, the Scottish Parliament and the Executive, understand and apply the act.

Authorities are faced with the task of training staff to prepare for the new regime, as well as working out how freedom of information sits with data-protection and initiatives such as electronic government.

The Executive has started to promote the education process. It has commissioned a set of training materials for the public sector from the training arm of Masons Solicitors, which can be downloaded from the Scottish Executive website (www.scotland.gov.uk).

Masons has worked with a range of public authorities on data protection and freedom of information issues, including training and compliance audits. This provides an open-learning workbook and a trainer’s pack. The Act requires public authorities to develop a publication scheme so the public can see what sort of information they hold. This is to provide information in an easily accessible form.

The Act allows any individual or organisation – anywhere in the world – to ask for information from a Scottish public authority.

Authorities are only obliged to provide recorded information, such as computer documents, handwritten notes and videos.

A code of practice provides guidance on the keeping, management and destruction of records – both paper-based and electronic. Experience from implementation of the Data Protection Act has shown effective compliance can be brought about only by cultural change.

That necessitates management buy-in, a commitment to the development of workable processes and standards and staff awareness. There are instances when information may be exempt from requests.

  • Some apply to areas that you would expect, such as national security. But people also want answers to real-life questions: Can we refuse to disclose bid and tender documentation? How do we deal with pressure groups? How do we assess what is in the public interest?

When personal data about a third party is requested, the public authority needs to consider if disclosure would breach the Data Protection Act; otherwise a public authority could be investigated by the UK Information Commissioner.

This may all seem daunting, but the Freedom of Information Act should hold no fears for those prepared for problems which may arise.

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