Asking All the Right (Awkward) Questions; 'Freedom to Know' Laws Are Really Getting Results

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Picken Scottish Political Reporter

THOUSANDS of Scots are using 'right to know' laws to hold the country's public bodies to account.

The official in charge of Freedom of Information (FOI) laws has used their fifth anniversary to declare them a success.

Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion has also called for an extension of FOI powers to stop civil servants using 'arm'slength' companies to avoid releasing information.

This happens when public authorities create trusts to deliver services on their behalf, a move which can sidestep FOI rules.

The FOI laws - which allow anyone to ask a public authority for information it holds - were introduced in 2005. It is estimated that three-quarters of all FOI requests now come from members of the public.

Notable triumphs of the legislation have included the publication of MSPs' expenses, and making NHS Scotland release surgeons' patient mortality rates.

Yesterday, Mr Dunion said he was delighted so many people use FOI laws but called for them to be strengthened to ensure they cover all organisations funded by taxpayers.

Meanwhile, research shows voluntary sector workers are afraid to submit FOI requests to public bodies for fear of jeopardising their funding.

Mr Dunion said: 'The good news is that Scotland has become more open since freedom of information was introduced, with authorities disclosing more information than ever before.

'The bad news is that when authorities refuse to give information, they often fail in their legal duty to inform people of their right of appeal.'

However, the commissioner added: 'I am concerned that a substantial proportion of voluntary sector staff think using their FOI rights will harm relations with public authorities or lead to a loss in funding. …