Journalists have accused the Scottish Government of failing to keep records and frustrating freedom of information law.
For more see: https://theferret.scot/scottish-ministers-freedom-of-information-breaches/
This story was followed up by the BBC:
It also prompted the following statements from Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats:
Commenting on the joint FOI letter from journalists to Derek Mackay, Scottish Labour’s Culture spokesperson Lewis Macdonald MSP said:
“This is a welcome and important intervention from some of Scotland’s most experienced journalists.
“The SNP often trumpets its alleged openness and transparency, but clearly it is falling wide of the mark.
“Labour introduced Freedom of Information legislation to ensure government was accessible to the public and journalists as far as possible.
“SNP ministers must now take action to ensure their government is as open and transparent as they profess – or else public concern that they have something to hide will only grow.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat business manager Mike Rumbles MSP today demanded the SNP Government become more open and transparent after over twenty journalists signed a letter accusing it of frustrating freedom of information (FOI) law and failing to keep records.
Commenting, Mr Rumbles said:
“It is worrying to see so many respected journalists feel the need to sign such a letter. The law is clear about what information the Scottish Government has a duty to disclose but it is being flouted time and again. Minutes of meetings aren’t being taken to ensure there is no paper trail on what was discussed and how decisions are reached. The public is being cheated.
“Trying to get information out of the Scottish Government is like wrestling with jelly. Even the freedom of information commissioner has condemned its approach as being unacceptable and rude.
“We have seen attempts to conceal non-existent legal advice on an independent Scotland’s EU membership, costs of luxury hotels for a trip to a gold tournament in Chicago withheld and the curbing of communications relating to the SNP’s plans to centralise HIE.
“SNP ministers may want to keep working in shadows but Scottish Liberal Democrats are determined to strengthen and expand the public’s right to information.”
The Labour MSP Neil Findlay has also lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament backing the concerns expressed by journalists:
Leading Journalists Criticise the Scottish Government over FOISA
That the Parliament notes with great concern the letter from whom it understands are 23 prominent Scottish journalists to the selection panel for the appointment of the Scottish Information Commissioner, which was published on 1 June 2017 by The Ferret and Common Space and details what they argue are the failures of the Scottish Government and its agencies in relation to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA); understands that it suggests that the application of FOISA by ministers and officials is questionable at best and, at worst, implies a culture and practice of secrecy and cover up, including, it believes, through routinely avoiding sharing information, often through not recording or taking minutes of meetings that are attended by ministers or senior civil servants; considers that this flies in the face of what it sees as the Scottish Government’s much-vaunted assessment of itself as open and transparent, including through the Open Government Partnership Scottish National Action Plan and its role as one of 15 pioneer members of the Open Government Partnership’s inaugural International Subnational Government Programme and legislation such as the Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011; understands that the Scottish Government introduced its Record Management Plan to comply with the 2011 Act; notes the view that the journalists’ criticism of FOISA shows that it is time to have a review of whether the legislation remains robust or has been diminished, whether it should be extended and strengthened and whether elements of it are still appropriate, such as the level set for the cost exemption, whereby the Scottish Government may refuse to provide information if the cost of doing so exceeds £600, a figure that hasn’t been updated since FOISA came into force, and further notes the view that, by doing so, this would ensure that people in Lothian and across the country who use their freedom of information rights could be confident that FOISA would be improved and applied in a way that was consistent with the spirit intended when the law was established.
Great - this is in line with my experience of how Councils & Scots Gov avoid or fudge FOI responses in the planning area. This is despite the RTPI Code of Professional Conduct requiring RTPI members to keep “an accurate summary” of all meetings. A few cases are with SPOS (Ombudsman) at present. We need clear unambiguous “Professional Guidance” to tackle this ability to “mislead by omission”.
In Planning we urgently need the SG Planning Review to speedily require a “ePlanning Code of Professional Good Practice” to address the way many Council’s fail to place ALL emails & correspondence on-line. The lack of transparency seeks to hide a multitude of issues - and ultimately undermines the whole planning process.
Also - SG should tackle the way Council’s increasingly kick FOI requests towards being “EIR” (Environmental Information Regulations) requests - mainly so they can try and charge for the info. Yet very few (if any??) Council’s actually voluntarily publish extensive Environmental Data proactively - which is a key part of implementing EIR requirements.
The Holyrood motion has now got cross party backing, so it’s eligible for debate.
The Scottish Parliament has now confirmed that there will be a debate after 5pm on Tuesday 13 June on the motion by Labour MSP Neil Findlay expressing “great concern” about the joint letter from 23 journalists criticising the handling of freedom of information requests by the Scottish Government. The motion has so far been supported by two Conservative MSPs, Adam Tomkins and Jamie Greene, the Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott, the Green MSP Andy Wightman, and eight Labour MSPs.
Is it just me? I look at the profile of Scottish “journalism” and am horrified at its openly anti-SNP position. No balance…virtually all pro-Union, with any excuse sufficient to attack the Government and daily attempts to undermine them…
I have no problem with justified criticism and believe Governments should be held to account… I’m just not convinced that biased “journalists” are the champions I would choose to act on behalf of the public. With the “spin” and innuendo evident on a daily basis, and the vast majority following the political leaning of their publication’s owner - anti-independence and anti-SNP…
Championing the cause of FOI should be the role of the Scottish Information Commissioner, who can at least rightly claim to be unbiased and therefore present as much more credible.
As for the legislation? Use it… The powers of Review and Appeal are there. I know I’ve used them to good effect… I’ve also seen lazy “journalists” whining about FOI and how the public sector should be doing their work for them and safe to say, it never impressed me one bit… And I saw many, many journalist requests in my time in the public sector between 2001-13
Sadly, this sounds more like political point scoring dressed up as “justified criticism” in yet another SNP bad story…but I am sure that’s not the case
There’s a report in journalism.co.uk in advance of the Scottish Parliament debate on freedom of information and the Scottish Government:
The official report of the debate in the Scottish Parliament on 13 June 2017 on journalists’ concerns about the Scottish Government’s approach to freedom of information can be found here:
The Open Government Network for Scotland has published an open letter, backed by a range of voluntary sector signatories, calling on the Scottish Parliament Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee to investigate the operation of Freedom of Information legislation in Scotland.
In the letter they say that a range of stakeholders have raised issues with the operation of FOI laws and suggest that: “These concerns are at a sufficient level, and represent a significantly wide array of society that we believe the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 should be examined by the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee.”
You can read the whole letter at this link.
Mr Singer has obviously never experienced the practical difficulties of trying to get basic info out of public bodies. Where is the “proactive publishing of info” that the Commissioner recommended? And failing to take minutes of meetings is simply unprofessional!