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Public bodies must improve FOI performance says Information Commissioner

17 October 2019

The Scottish Information Commissioner has launched his annual report and accounts for 2018-19.

The report highlights some positive notes and important trends in the freedom of information (FOI) landscape in Scotland. Among others, it reveals that Scottish public bodies are receiving record numbers of FOI requests.

There were 83,963 requests reported by Scottish public authorities in the year 2018-19, which is a rise of 8% on the year before. Three quarters of these requests led to a full or partial release of information.

The number of appeals made to the Scottish Information Commissioner also increased, by 10% to 560, which is still just 0.7% of all requests made. Just under two thirds of the Commissioner’s decisions (64%) were either fully or partially in favour of the requester.

FOI law gives people a right to access information held by public bodies in Scotland. This includes the Scottish Government, local authorities, NHS bodies, the police, universities and colleges. Information is commonly accessed through making a FOI request, to which authorities must respond promptly, and no later than 20 working days.

However, the report shows that authorities are increasingly failing to comply with this deadline:

• The number of times an authority failed to respond to an FOI request rose from 601 in 2017/8 to 940 in 2018/19
• 26% of valid appeals to the Commissioner were about an authority’s failure to respond.
The Commissioner has responded by conducting more than 250 interventions over the course of the year. A third (33%) of his basic interventions investigated authorities’ compliance with statutory timescales. Often these failures to respond to statutory timescales can be indications of other fundamental problems, such as FOI management and culture issues, staff absences, or procedures not working well.

A poll of Scottish adults conducted in May 2019 found disappointing levels of confidence in public bodies’ ability to respond to requests, which were much lower than the actual performance in practice:

• 57% were ‘very’ or ‘fairly confident’ they would receive a response from a request to information from a public body.
• 38% were ‘not very’ or ‘not at all confident’ they would receive a response.
Any increases in authorities’ failures to respond are likely to feed this perception.

FOI law requires authorities to publish information as well as respond to requests. The public largely agreed that making information accessible to the public without them having to ask for it was important. Nine in 10 people in Scotland thought it was important for public bodies to publish information about the reasons for the decisions they make, information about contracts with other organisations and information about how they spend their money.

The Commissioner is using the opportunity of his annual report to emphasise the need for authorities to do more to improve their compliance with freedom of information law.

Daren Fitzhenry, Scottish Information Commissioner, said: “We are seeing increasing numbers of information requests being made to Scottish public authorities. While many are performing well, there has been a concerning increase in failures to respond to requests for information on time. Such failures impact on people’s perception of both freedom of information and the authorities themselves.

“Freedom of Information brings significant benefits to authorities who comply with it. Public bodies improving their Freedom of Information practice will make a real difference not only to the requester’s experience but also to the authorities themselves.”

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