In the year that the Scottish Parliament celebrates 20 years of devolution Shetland MSP Tavish Scott has urged the Scottish Government to update one of the Parliament’s most notable legislative successes, Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation, after informing a committee of questionable FOI practices.
The Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee is currently scrutinising the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.
The Liberal Democrat submission to the Committee:
- shows the Scottish Government coordinating the responses of local authorities to freedom of information requests;
- challenges the interpretation and use of the public interest test, highlighting a request for information relating to outstanding work on the Queensferry Crossing, which after being months late was rejected because it could be damaging to the contractors, only for Parliament to eventually acquire the information to no apparent detriment;
- highlights critical meetings, including on the future of the Chief Constable and Teach First, which were attended by senior SNP ministers but not minuted;
- raises concerns about the role of special advisers and the undue influence they exert over the freedom of information process within the Scottish Government.
The submission also calls for the expansion of FOI law to include private companies delivering public contracts, some worth as much as £7 billion.
“The FOI Act revolutionised the public’s right to access information. This Liberal Democrat law has been one of Holyrood’s greatest successes.
“However, I have told the Committee of a number of questionable FOI practices, such as the Scottish Government interfering in local authorities responding to freedom of information requests.
“All too often we’re finding political advisers have too much power or the public interest test is being wheeled out as a get out of jail free card. Conducting high-profile high-interest meetings without taking notes rips up the FOI rulebook and is a tactic to avoid paper trails to keep Parliament and the public in the dark.
“As we celebrate 20 years of devolution we should turn our attention to how FOI law needs to evolve and expand, as its original architects always intended. That needs to start by opening up private companies with big public contracts to the scrutiny they deserve.
“The public want to know whether the contractors maintaining our roads, or running our railways and prisons, are doing a good job. The ScotRail contract is worth £7bn - more than the budgets of many councils and government departments. In return, the public should have the right to ask them basic questions.”