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Date: Fri 2 November 2012

Ministers must act now to protect FOI rights - UNISON welcomes Finance Committee Report

UNISON welcomes the fact that the Scottish Parliament's Finance Committee has today called on Ministers to act on lost Freedom of Information rights.

The Committee’s Stage 1 Report on the Freedom of Information (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill asks the Scottish Government to consider amendments on extending coverage to protect the public’s right to know.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland also welcomed the report. (news release below)

We urge the Scottish Government to now amend the Bill to ensure that the public has full rights to information on PPP/PFI contracts, leisure trusts, housing associations and other bodies currently not covered.

Last month Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew, who in September gave evidence to the Committee, stressed again that extending the Act is necessary to protect rights.

She said in her Oct 12 newsletter:

“It is now ten years since the FOI provision to designate additional bodies was enacted, yet in that decade no orders have been made, despite radical changes to the public sector landscape.
“It is easy to think of designation principally in terms of an extension of the right to information. However, a failure to designate is increasingly representative of a failure to protect rights.

“By not designating new authorities rights to information are being lost through the outsourcing of public service delivery - whether it be to PFI contractors, external "arms-length" organisations, or other third parties.

“Since the FOI Act came into force in 2005, for example, 15,000 Scottish households have lost FOI rights as a result of the transfer of local authority housing stock to housing associations.”

Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland news release
Friday 2 Nov 2012

Scottish Government must have courage to reform Freedom of Information Law

The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoIS) today endorsed the Scottish Parliament Finance Committee’s conclusions on the Freedom of Information (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill. The Committee, in its Stage One report called on the government to bring forward proposals to protect the public’s right to know.

CFoIS is pleased the Committee has listened to its evidence that legal reform must address the increasing number of public services that are being moved outwith the scope of Freedom of Information legislation via private contractors, housing associations, arms-length organisations and voluntary bodies. The Committee requested that the Scottish Government come forward with fresh proposals at Stage 2. CFoIS believes a ‘purpose’ clause should be added to the Bill and Section 5 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 amended ensuring all public services are covered by FoI. These two reforms will ensure the public have an enforceable right to access information when public services or services of a public nature are delivered.

CFoIS also called for the proposed absolute exemption for Royal Communications to be dropped and is relieved that the Committee agrees. We believe there is no case to change the current arrangement whereby the existing exemption is subjected to a ‘public interest’ test.

The Committee states:
“... in relation to the Royal exemption the Committee invites the Scottish Government to remove the Bill’s section 1 provision at Stage 2.63 The Committee also invites the Cabinet Secretary to provide details and timings of how the Scottish Government intends to take forward the issue of extension of coverage and clarify what the options are which she is ‘actively considering’, including the possibility of Stage 2 amendments to section 5 of the 2002 Act. In the light of this response, the Committee will reconsider its position on this issue at Stage 2.”
(Para 93 http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/
CurrentCommittees/56170.aspx
)

Carole Ewart, Co-convener of the CFoIS said
“We are delighted that the Finance Committee has identified that people’s right to know is not as effective in 2012, as it was in 2002 when the law was passed, and 2005 when it came into force. It is now time for the Scottish Government to accept the Committee’s conclusions and the evidence provided and introduce the necessary amendments so Scottish FoI law is once more pre-eminent in the UK.”

ENDS

Note for editors

UNISON Scotland’s submission to the Finance Committee on the freedom of Information (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill is here
http://www.unison-scotland.org.uk/response/
FOIAmendBill_Aug12.pdf

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