Campaigners have joined together to promote access to information rights as a human right to mark today’s (Tues 10 Dec) United Nations International Human Rights Day.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoIS) and UNISON Scotland highlighted the bank of FOI and environmental information rights available to all.
But they warned that there are threats ahead to FOI rights in Scotland and today’s global celebrations should be a reminder to stand up for FOI.
Both organisations welcomed this year’s theme for International Human Rights Day – ‘Youth standing up for Human Rights’, especially with young people’s voice being so loud on climate change and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Carole Ewart, Convener of CFoIS, said: “Popular support for access to information rights is increasing, which is great. It unites ages and gender, with recent polling by the Scottish Information Commissioner finding that 91% of Scottish adults had heard of FOI legislation, up from 76% in 2009.
“But post legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (FoISA) shows some real threats. Twenty public sector bodies have urged MSPs to weaken freedom of information law increasing charges, widening exemptions and relaxing deadlines.
“Five local authorities, three NHS organisations, Police Scotland, Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish Charity Regulator are among those who have made submissions to MSPs suggesting more restrictions.
“Two organisations representing senior local authority lawyers and other officials are lobbying to increase charges, delay responses and reject more requests as ‘vexatious.’”
She added that strong FOI legislation is a way to build trust as the polling showed that 77% would be more likely to trust an authority that publishes a lot of information about its work. There is also strong public agreement on the type of information which should be made available by public authorities: how public authorities spend their money (94%), reasons for the decisions public authorities make (90%), how public authorities deliver their services and functions (94%), contracts with other organisations (84%) and data and statistics about their performance (93%).
UNISON Scotland said it is keen to see FOI laws extended as contracting out of services has meant many rights were lost and there can be confusion for the general public.
Stephen Smellie, Depute Convener, said: “It is very important that the right to know follows the public pound. We urge the Scottish Government to ensure all public services are covered under FOISA, however they are delivered.”
Carole Ewart said: “Individuals, organisations, journalists and community groups want to find out how publicly funded services are performing now and be able to influence how they act in the future. Therefore accessing information in order to form an opinion is a key tool in delivering individual and community empowerment. Yet there is plenty of evidence and informed commentary that law, culture and practice need to change in Scotland so that our right keeps pace with how information is gathered and processed as well as accommodating changes in how public services are delivered.”
She added: “The point of FoI laws is for people to enforce the release of information which an authority does not want to disclose and that will clearly lead to tensions. It is easier and most cost effective to just pro-actively publish information so fewer FoI requests have to be answered in the statutory 20-day period.”
As we head towards next month’s 15th Anniversary of FoISA coming into force both organisations urged people to learn from the practice of FoI law in Scotland as the Scottish Government delivers on its promises to make human rights generally more real in our everyday lives.
Carole Ewart added: “The system needs to build in resilience and protect our human rights from some of those who are being asked to deliver them who may be concerned about the power and accountability that it gives the public and who oppose any costs associated with ensuring that our basic human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled.”
- International Human Rights Day takes place on 10th December https://www.un.org/en/observances/human-rights-day This year’s theme is ‘Youth standing up for Human Rights’.
- FoISA became effective on 1st January 2005 and 10,000 bodies were immediately covered.
- The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland was established in 1984 to improve public access to official information, to secure legal right to access information and to enforce that right. The initiative came from the Scottish Consumer Council. As we believe in the right of people to find out about how they are governed and how their services are delivered our work includes: ensuring access to information Acts are implemented effectively; deliver training, provide briefings, write submissions and offer comment/analysis; campaign on new and emerging issues requiring changes in practice/law.
- UNISON Scotland is Scotland’s largest trade union. Our recent response to the Scottish Government consultation on extending FOISA is here. https://unison-scotland.org/consultation-response-on-freedom-of-information-coverage-extension/
 Commissioner’s polling 2017.