Scottish FOI watchdog reports 20% boost in appeals

Most of the appeals related to local government ...

The Scottish Information Commissioner (SICO) received 20 per cent more appeal applications relating to freedom of information (FOI) requests during the first three months of this year than the watchdog received last year.

SICO, which is responsible for ensuring Scottish public bodies comply with FOI laws in Scotland, said that it had received 126 appeal applications relating to FOI requests between January and March compared to the 105 that it had forecast it would have to deal with. SICO received 105 FOI appeal applications between January and March 2010, the watchdog said.

In SICO's annual report for 2010/11, the Scottish Information Commissioner said that the "upturn" may be down to an increase in the number of people seeking information about cuts in public spending.

"The upturn in the number of appeals being made to me, which was evident by the end of 2010-11, is even more pronounced in the first few months of 2011/12," Kevin Dunion said in the report (34-page / 1.79MB PDF).

"It is still not clear why this should be the case, but it could be an indicator that authorities are receiving more requests. There is also some evidence that many of the appeals are for technical failings on the part of some authorities – such as not responding to requests in time or at all. Cuts in public expenditure may lead to more people using their rights to ask for information concerning matters affecting their jobs or services, with authorities coming under pressure to respond despite constrained staff resources and training budgets," he said.

Dunion said that SICO had now dealt with more than 10,000 enquiries from the public regarding FOI requests since the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act came into full force on 1 January 2005. That Act, together with the Freedom of Information Act that applies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, gives individuals the right to see information held by government departments and public bodies.

Under the FOI laws anyone of any nationality living anywhere in the world can make a written request for information and expect a response within 20 working days. The public authority will be obliged to meet that request unless exemptions apply or unless meeting it will be too costly or difficult.

Dunion said that SICO had to make a "formal decision" in 263 appeals during 2010/11 compared to 179 in the previous 12-month period. The public submitted 75 per cent of appeals received by SICO during the last year, with the largest proportion of total appeals relating to local government, the watchdog said.

"Just over 40 per cent of applications over the last two years have concerned local government – but the share of applications relating to Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Parliament has reduced from 23 per cent in 2009/10 to 15 per cent in 2010/11," Dunion said.

"Appeals against police forces are also down. Most applications are from ordinary members of the public, and the media account for a relatively small share – just 9 per cent in 2010/11. We received only eight applications from elected members in 2010/11, compared to 21 the year before. The share of applications relating to employment issues, finance and expenses is up from 15 per cent in 2009/10 to 24 per cent in 2010/11. Applications about key policy areas such as education, health and the environment, however, have declined," Dunion said.

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