By Hamish Macdonell
Nearly six out of 10 appeals against Scottish public bodies over refusals to requests under freedom of information provisions were successful, new figures show.
More than 500 people appealed to Scotland's information commissioner last year after having their requests under the freedom of information (Scotland) act (FOISA) turned down by public bodies north of the border.
The level of appeals under FOISA is thought to be more than twice the rate, per head of population, for FOIA in the UK as a whole, leading to accusations that Scotland’s public life – including the Scottish executive, based at St Andrew's House – remains shrouded in secrecy.
The figures were disclosed in the annual report of Kevin Dunion, Scotland's information commissioner. He said that some progress had been made, but stressed that much more was still needed.
While most public bodies were operating within the letter of the law and were complying with many FOISA requests, he said that they had not changed their cultures to embrace the spirit of the law.
He said: “Beyond compliance with the law, are we going to do things differently? Are we going to make decisions differently? Are we going to minute meetings differently?
“I want to know whether there will be a new FOISA culture, rather than just waiting to be asked about things and, as far as I can see, we are still waiting for that to happen.”
He said that he still found public bodies refusing to disclose information because this would inhibit the actions of future civil servants.
The commissioner said that he rejected this argu-ment every time, but said that it signalled a reluctance to change within the civil service.
He said that all public bodies should change the way they worked, collating all information and taking minutes of all meetings so that they could be disclosed.
During 2006, 511 people appealed to Scotland's information commissioner over information that they had sought from Scottish public bodies.
The commissioner ruled on 252 cases and intervened to force bodies to reveal information in 144. In 22 per cent of all cases, he found entirely in favour of the requestor, and partially in 35 per cent.
Margaret Curran, minister for parliamentary bus-iness, said that FOISA had been a success. “Release of information does ultimately require, in some instances, a change to a culture of openness. But that does not necessarily mean that the starting point was a culture of secrecy.
“FOISA is delivering genuine benefits to the people of Scotland, providing greater access than ever before: details about their local hospital, for example.”
She continued: “Since the introduction of the act, the executive has routinely published more information than was previously available, and we are continuing work to build upon the success to date. In such a short space of time, FOISA has broken down many barriers.”
A range of people and organisations experienced in using FOIA and FOISA say that “freedom of information” provisions had opened up government – but not enough.
Christine Grahame, a Scottish Nationalist Party MSP, who has often been frustrated in her attempts to extract information from the executive, said: “The culture of secrecy has not gone away, it has got worse.
“Structures are now in place, and practices are now in place to make sure that, even if you are successful, the information you want will not be there; they will have discussed it in places where it is not recorded or minuted. And the worst offenders are the Scottish executive.”
Bill Welsh, a campaigner on autism, said: “Every government department now has an information officer: maybe they should change the terminology to, 'You are not getting the information officer.’ They have been erecting the barricades since FOISA, and it is still very difficult to get information from government departments.”
Lindsay Scott, of Help the Aged, said: “In many public services, there is an 'us and them attitude' and they forget they are there to serve the public. It is not made easy to get information.”
However, she added: “It is a step forward to able to get information we have always been told is none of our business."
Mark Watts, of the FOIA Centre, the company that makes FOIA and FOISA requests for clients, said: “We have been able to see government's inner workings. And they are desperate to shut the lid on it."
Duncan Mclaren, of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “They want access cut. That encourages the dinosaurs to keep heads down.”
John Scott, former chairman of the Scottish Human Rights Centre, said: “The system has credibility, but there's still culture of resistance in government.”
And Julia Clark, of Consumers' Association, said: “We need to be protective of the act. The danger is that government tries to rein it in.”
Hamish Macdonell is Scottish political editor of The Scotsman, where another version of this article first appeared.
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