Ten years ago the Scottish public was given an important new right. The Scottish Parliament’s freedom of information (FOI) law gave each of us a right of access to the information Scotland’s public bodies hold. This right was based on a simple premise: the information held by public bodies is public information. This information informs us about functions and services delivered on our behalf, and how decisions are taken about them. It is our information, paid for by our taxes, so we should be able to access it, understand it and use it
Over the last decade, FOI has quietly supported citizens in a huge range of ways. As Scottish Information Commissioner, responsible for considering appeals when information is refused, I see how the right makes a difference. Whether it is a parent trying to prevent a school closure, a residents’ group concerned about pollution, or people campaigning for better care for premature babies, having information is empowering. All these people used FOI to help make powerful cases, which made a difference. And public bodies in Scotland report receiving more than 60,000 FOI requests last year.
But these rights are not secure: we face a real danger of their loss. There has been a slow but steady erosion of rights, largely as a result of the outsourcing of public functions. Since 2005, for example, more than 15,000 households in Scotland (and the wider public) have lost their FOI rights to access information about the quality and standard of their housing, because of the transfer of local authority housing stock to housing associations.
At the moment, when public functions are outsourced, information rights do not follow them as a matter of course. Ensuring these rights are protected requires ministerial action. Unfortunately, successive Scottish Governments have been slow to act, with only one order to protect information rights in ten years of FOI. That order, in 2013, brought third-party trusts like Edinburgh Leisure within FOI, restoring the right to access information about the standard and performance of leisure services, and requiring them to publish information up front.
But one order is not enough. If our rights mean anything to us, they must be protected. That is why I am calling for the Scottish Government to consider further orders to reinstate the FOI rights lost over the past decade, and for rights to be transferred when public functions are outsourced in future. FOI helps build strong, effective, more accountable public services, and we must take care to ensure that these rights, and the benefits they bring, are extended and strengthened, not lost.
Rosemary Agnew is Scottish Information Commissioner.