Gina Davidson: Right to know still FoI pipe dream

Statutory repairs have no doubt led to a spate of FoI requests, but commissioner Rosemary Agnew is concerned at slow response rates. Picture: Callum Bennetts

Statutory repairs have no doubt led to a spate of FoI requests, but commissioner Rosemary Agnew is concerned at slow response rates. Picture: Callum Bennetts

0
Have your say

It was barely mentioned, so you might not have known. Which is ironic, as it was International Right to Know Day last week.

Yes, Saturday was when we were supposed to give a big cheer at being able to poke our noses into the filing cabinets and e-mail in-trays belonging to people who’d much rather they remained unpoked by the proles. A kind of two-dimensional equivalent of Doors Open Day.

The aim of the day was to make us all remember that we have the right to access government-held information, the right to know how elected officials are exercising power and how our tax money is being spent, all because of the Freedom of Information legislation.

It all sounds rather honest and transparent, and a tip-top way of making sure our country is openly democratic. The opposite, for 
instance, of the cack-handed 
attempts to cover up information about MPs’ expenses. It’s a wonder why there weren’t street parties.

Perhaps there were none because despite Freedom of Information being a great idea, and one which is being utilised by increasing numbers of people who are not just journalists looking for a story, actually getting the information you want can still prove to be like squeezing blood from a stone.

New figures out earlier this week showed that Edinburgh City Council was particularly bad when it comes to answering FoI requests within the time frame by which it is legally bound. Second only to the Scottish Government, it was named as the worst public body in Scotland in the numbers of appeals against its processes in this regard.

The problem has been getting gradually worse. According to the Scottish Information Commissioner’s report, appeals ­involving FoI requests to the council totalled 64 – up more than ten per cent from 56 the previous year, but dramatically up from 24 in 2010-11, 22 in 2009-10 and just 15 in 
2008-9.

The commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, is concerned, not just at the council’s inability to handle the 
requests efficiently but because every failure with an FoI undermines the public’s belief that their requests are worth the paper they’re written on.

She’s right to be. Admittedly 
Edinburgh has probably had a lot of issues when it’s come to dealing with an influx of FoI requests dealing with the statutory notice scandal, but that’s when it should be stepping up to the plate, ready to deal with the public’s right to know what’s going on. It should have been prepared.

Imagine how much more it would have to deal with if the tram project was an internal scheme rather than outsourced to an arms-length body? While TIE did have to oblige FoI 
requests, it could still refuse to release information because it was “commercially confidential”.

Some arms-length bodies and council contractors are still exempt from FoI legislation, although there are moves to bring bodies like Edinburgh Leisure into the fold. For too long using these organisations has been a cop-out for any 
publicly-funded body to refuse to give out information about where taxpayers’ money is going. Things still need to become more transparent when it comes to public bodies, unless they want us to paint our faces with wode and charge into the Chambers yelling “freedom”. Mind you, that might get you an 
answer pdq.

KEEP IT REAL, BOBBY

GREYFRIARS Bobby has had a nose job because too many people were rubbing it for luck. But what sort of example is he setting to younger terriers, I ask you? Be proud of your worn nose Bobby. Be proud.

Ticket hopes stubbed out

LIKE thousands of others, I got my e-mail from the Glasgow 2014 ticket administrators to say I’d been allocated a grand total of nothing.

Not a single ticket for the half-dozen events I’d applied for. Not even a seat at a preliminary round hockey match. Not that I’m bitter.

There were plenty of others bemoaning missing out, and yet many saying that they’d been given tickets for two or three events. That strikes me as a rather unsporting way of allocating tickets. Getting Olympic tickets was hard enough, I thought Glasgow 2014 would be easier.

I take it back, I am bitter.

Glasgow gives a gift for New Year

EDINBURGH’S Hogmanay has received a welcome gift from an unexpected quarter – Glasgow.

The city fathers through in the west have ruled that their official New Year celebrations will be over two hours before the bells – ­despite extra funding being given to Hogmanay festivities as 2014 is “Scotland’s Big Year”, with the Homecoming, Commonwealth Games, Ryder Cup, the anniversary of Culloden and let’s not forget that vote on independence.

But instead of making merry while the snow falls, Glasgow is halting its Hogmanay party at 10pm, although pubs will be open later. So all the more reason then to see in the New Year in Edinburgh, where the festivities will carry on into the wee small hours of the morning.

School reunion holds no horror

THIS weekend I’m going to be meeting people I haven’t set eyes on since 1989, or possibly 87, depending on when they left school.

Yes, I’ve reached the age where reunions become events which have lost their potential horror and instead have become more fascinating. I can’t help but look forward to seeing what the intervening 24 years have done to us all. I’m sure we’ll all be looking great after a few rounds.