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Privatising services risks losing FoI rights, Agnew warns

11 December 2014

Increasing delivery of public services through private organisations risks having a serious effect on  freedom of information (FoI) rights, Scotland's Information Commissioner warned today.

Rosemary Agnew, the Commissioner, said she would be delivering a special report on the subject to the Scottish Parliament early next year to highlight her concerns.

Speaking at the annual Freedom of Information Conference at Holyrood today, as FoI is about to mark the 10th anniversary of the legislation coming into force, Ms Agnew said that FoI "is alive and well in Scotland but care must be taken that, after 10 years, rights to information keep pace with change and are not further eroded".

She revealed that research conducted for her office by Ipsos MORI in October found that a record 95% of the Scottish public thinks that the right to access information held by public authorities is important, with public awareness of FOI at an all-time high of 84%. Only 8% of people feel that FoI is a waste of public money.

Speaking ahead of the conference, she commented: “2014 saw unprecedented levels of democratic engagement in Scotland, with individuals and communities from every part of the country taking part in discussions and debates exploring how we are governed. Crucial to democratic engagement is information. It is a credit to Scotland that the public’s awareness of, and support for, information rights is at an all-time high. Access to information is one of a range of mechanisms through which citizens can engage with public bodies and hold them to account for their performance, their spending and their decision making.

“I’m pleased to report that, as it approaches its 10th anniversary, Scottish FoI is in generally good health. Data from public authorities suggest that over 60,000 FoI requests were made in 2013-14, with more than 90% resulting all or some of the information being provided, and less than 1% being appealed to me. Put together, this all paints a picture of an FoI right that is known about, valued, and used."

Regarding the privatisation issue she added: “At the same time as support for FoI has increased, real concerns have arisen that FoI rights are being lost as the delivery of public services changes and more services are provided by the private sector and others. For example, in the 10 years since FoI came into force, it is estimated that over 15,000 households in Scotland have lost information rights through the transfer of local authority stock to housing associations. It is a loss not only to the households themselves but to the public at large, calling to question whether such a vital service can truly be open and accountable. I am also not convinced that enough consideration has been given to extending the coverage of FoI to new areas.

“That is why I am preparing a special report for the Scottish Parliament to explore this important issue. My aim is for the report to promote a constructive and grown-up debate about how we collectively ensure that rights keep pace with change, rather than fall increasingly behind.”

The Commissioner’s special report, exploring which bodies should be covered by FoI, will be published in January 2015.

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