Comment: Is council embarrassed about something?

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Why is Edinburgh City Council failing to respond in a positive manner to so many Freedom of Information requests? Refusals by the council have now hit a five year high and are more than double the 2010 level.

Of 1534 requests received in 2014, 917 were refused – a rate of just under 60 per cent.

From the outset of Freedom of Information legislation in 2000, it was clear there was always going to be a gap between raised expectations over public right of access and the ability – and legal obligation – of government institutions to deliver.

Often FoI requests are rejected because of legal reasons – where, for example, an official inquiry or investigation is ongoing such as the tram dispute, the Liberton High School tragedy and the statutory repairs scandal – or because the request seeks personal data which cannot be released.

The council says it is performing well against other Scottish councils.

But the number of FoI request refusals seems extraordinarily high. And the process can often prove time consuming and cumbersome, discouraging the public from pursuing their requests for perfectly legitimate 
information.

All this poses major questions over the operation of a system that was set up to help strengthen local democracy.

Recently, the Evening News used FoI legislation to show how wardens here are issuing only a tenth of the fines handed out in Glasgow for littering, fly-tipping and dog fouling – despite mounting concern over the state of the streets.

Evening News queries which were refused include attempts to access correspondence about a grievance procedure involving Transport for Edinburgh chief executive Ian Craig.

A request for information on possible pay-offs to former Services for Communities director Mark Turley at the time of his resignation last year was also knocked back.

These are hardly issues that pose a threat to national security or the safe functioning of the city. The impression created is of a mindset reluctant to divulge any information which might be embarrassing to the city council and its 
officials.

The council says that where it holds requested information, it would always aim to release it and that it is committed to acting in the public interest. The figures on refusals, however, will lead many to suspect otherwise.