Scottish government rebuked over poor FOI practices

Joe FitzPatrick

The Scottish government’s handling of freedom of information requests has been criticised in a new report.

Information Commissioner Daren Fitzhenry found “unjustifiable, significant delays” in a number of cases.

He said journalists and others had faced an “additional layer of clearance” that should come to an end.

FOI requests from journalists, MSPs and researchers are referred for clearance by ministers in the current system, a practice inconsistent with the principle that, “in most cases, it should not matter who asks for information”, Mr Fitzhenry said.

The government has been given three months to provide an action plan on how it will improve its practices.

The report also states:

  • The Scottish government’s FOI policies and procedures are not clear enough about the role of special advisers in responding to FOI requests.
  • The Scottish government takes longer to respond to journalists’ FOI requests than other requests, but in only one case did the commissioner find evidence that delay was deliberate.
  • The Scottish government’s FOI practice has improved significantly over the last year, following the commissioner’s first intervention: average response times to all requests, including journalists’ requests have reduced.
  • The commissioner makes seven recommendations for further specific improvements to: clearance procedures; quality assurance of FOI responses; training; case handling and case records management; monitoring FOI requests and review procedures.

The Scottish government stated that it was “happy to accept his recommendations in full to support our continued improvement”.

Minister for parliamentary business Joe FitzPatrick said: “In the first five months of 2018, we responded to 93 per cent of FOI requests on time, exceeding the 90 per cent target set by the Information Commissioner and a 10% increase on last year.

“Outside the FOI process, last year the Scottish government responded to over 5,000 queries from journalists in a matter of hours.”

Scottish Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins said: “This is a remarkable report which exposes Nicola Sturgeon’s secret Scotland.

“People will see this report and conclude the SNP government is trying to stop bad news happening, and its woeful performance being publicised, by meddling in this process.”

Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott commented: “The SNP have politicised information which people have a right to receive.

“They have been found out and now rebuked. Nothing less than an apology for their behaviour will be acceptable.”