Scotland politics

Calls for review of Scottish freedom of information system

Neil Findlay
Image caption Neil Findlay said there was a "systematic avoidance of scrutiny" from the top of the Scottish government

MSPs have called for a "wholescale review" of the Scottish government's freedom of information (FoI) practices.

Journalists from across the media signed an open letter raising concerns about the way FoI requests are handled.

Neil Findlay led members' business on the topic at Holyrood, decrying a "systematic avoidance of scrutiny and accountability from the highest level".

Joe Fitzpatrick, for the Scottish government, said Scotland has the best FoI system in the UK.

He noted the concerns but also said there had been a "substantial spike" in requests.

The open letter was signed by journalists from the BBC, STV, several national newspapers and the Ferret and CommonSpace websites.

In it, journalists praised FoI legislation for improving transparency and openness, but said they were "increasingly concerned about the way in which the legislation is being interpreted and implemented" in recent years.

They highlighted issues including long delays in responding to requests, legal deadlines not being met, and requests being blocked or refused for "tenuous" reasons. They also said there was evidence of "requests being screened for potential political damage by special advisors".

Mr Findlay said he routinely had to rely on FoI requests to get information from the government because the responses to parliamentary questions were "dross" and would be "as well going into the shredder".

However, he said that increasingly, these requests "elicit either no reply or a very poor one".

He said: "I am today calling on this parliament to take these matters very seriously indeed. Scotland is not a pioneer in open government, it is a country where there is a systematic avoidance of scrutiny and accountability from the highest level down.

I am calling on the Standards and Procedures Committee to hold an inquiry into the claims made by these journalists and for there to be a review of FoI and how it is operating in Scotland."

Image caption Joe Fitzpatrick said he recognised concerns but defended the Scottish system as the most robust in the UK

A series of MSPs from all of Holyrood's opposition parties also made critical speeches.

Tory member Graham Simpson said serious issues had been raised, criticising "vague and meandering" responses from the government.

Green member Andy Wightman suggested improvements to FoI law, saying journalists appeared to be "treated differently" and asking if they would receive a response to their concerns.

Lib Dem MSP backed calls for an inquiry, saying the letter was a "damning indictment" of the government and saying a "fundamental change" was needed.

'Proud record'

Scottish government business manager Joe Fitzpatrick said he noted the concerns of journalists, and said he would write to the National Union of Journalists.

However, he defended the government's system as being the most robust in the UK, saying: "Scotland can be proud of its record in FoI."

He acknowledged that the amount of time taken to respond to some requests was "not good enough", but said there had been a "significant spike" in the volume of requests to the government and that work was ongoing to improve performance.

He also said all requests were dealt with within guidelines, and that there was a clear appeals process.

Mr Fitzpatrick noted that more requests had come in by April 2017 than had been submitted in the whole of 2007, although Mr Findlay said this would be lower if answers to parliamentary questions were not "dross".

Tory MSP Edward Mountain raised a point of order after the debate complaining that "yet again no answers have been given".

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