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August 1, 2012

Freedom of Information curtailed

Tony Blair refers to it as one his greatest mistakes in office – that it created a culture of risk aversion in government. Others argue it has shone light into some of the darker recesses of government.   Whether or not the legislation can be improved, the option to make a FOI request has unquestionably strengthened the hand of the man in the street against the faceless bureaucrat. But new research points to some negative aspects which militate against the efficacy of the Act.


Susan Smith, Third Force News

FEARS that asking difficult questions could impact on funding and relationships with public authorities is stopping charities using Freedom of Information (FOI) laws.

New research from Scotland’s Information Commission reveals that concern about funding and working relationships is a key concern for voluntary organisations making FOI enquiries. The legislation, which provides the right to access information held by public authorities, is generally under-used by voluntary organisations.

Around half of Scotland’s voluntary organisations have said they would be put off from requesting information from public bodies because of fears it would impact on their funding. Public bodies do not do enough to protect the identities of voluntary organisations that seek information, the research found. As a result FOI is more often used by smaller, more independent organisations or as a “last resort” when other lines of communication breakdown.

Voluntary organisations also complained that they feel public authorities, such as councils and health boards, deliberately try to frustrate the process.  They accused public bodies of delaying responses, inappropriately withholding information, interpreting requests too narrowly or exploiting ambiguities in request wording to avoid disclosure.

Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew said: “FOI was introduced to make Scotland’s public authorities more open and accountable to the communities they serve. We have seen many examples of the information released to voluntary organisations through FOI being used to inform and support public authorities in the delivery of better services.”

“This study raises some serious concerns. Any perception that an FOI request can result in negative consequences will deter people from using their right to access information – information which is often critical to asserting other rights.  I think that many public authorities will be surprised by these findings. They will not want to be viewed as treating FOI requests from voluntary organisations as a challenge or a threat. Public authorities need to engage with voluntary organisations to understand and address any fears.”

The report found that often organisations use third parties, such as umbrella bodies, MSPs or journalists to make requests on their behalf.  The Coalition of Care and Support Providers Scotland recently requested information from all 32 local authorities on the rates they pay for care at home services.

Davina Adamson, its information and communications officer, said: “Members came to us because of concerns in a specific area, but as we were concerned that this may be a broader issue, it seemed logical that CCPS should undertake a national request under FOI, rather than expecting our members to individually enquire at a local level.  We were very specific in what we asked for from the local authorities, having checked the detail of our request beforehand with the Scottish Information Commissioner’s office.”

“However, we received mixed responses following our request and although some councils were readily able to send the information requested, others appeared to struggle, and either asked for more time to locate all the data, or sent information which was incomplete or did not fully match the original FOI request.”

Some voluntary organisations also told the Scottish Information Commissioner they would be more likely to make requests if their identities as FOI requesters were only disclosed to a designated FOI officer.  Dr Will Dinan, from Strathclyde University, was one of the authors of the report.  He said: “It appears there is real reluctance to use FOI, with some voluntary groups concerned about harming working relationship and funding.  Such sensitivities are only likely to increase with public spending cutbacks. In this context it is very important that public authorities respect the rights of those using FOI to promote accountability.”