This guest blog from Daren Fitzhenry, the Scottish Information Commissioner, sets out some background information on Freedom of Information (FOI) and how to find out more. As with all guest blogs, what follows are the views of the author, not those of SPICe or indeed the Scottish Parliament.
The Scottish Information Commissioner promotes and enforces the public’s right to access the information held by Scottish public authorities under Freedom of Information law.
What is Freedom of Information?
”Freedom of Information” is a catch-all term to describe statutory rights under three pieces of legislation:
- The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002– An Act of the Scottish Parliament which gives everyone the right to ask for any information held by a Scottish public authority.
- The Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (the EIRs) – EU Regulations transposed into Scots law, which give everyone the right to ask for environmental information held by a Scottish public authority (this has a wider definition than in the 2002 Act).
- INSPIRE (Scotland) Regulations 2009 – EU Regulations transposed into Scots law requiring Scottish public authorities to make spatial datasets (e.g. map data) available.
The Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee is currently undertaking a review of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. I hope to give oral evidence to the Committee as part of their scrutiny. You can read my written evidence here.
This scrutiny casts a useful spotlight on freedom of information (FOI), reminding us of how important a part of our democratic structures it is, and how it opens the door to informed and meaningful participation in society, on the issues that are important to them.
I have just published my annual report showing increasing FOI activity in Scotland:
- The numbers of requests reported by Scottish Public Authorities rose by 8% to over 83,000.
- Appeals to my office rose by 10% to 560.
- Two thirds of these appeals were following requests to either local government (47%) or the Scottish Government (17%) – an increase of 10% on last year.
- The numbers of interventions carried out by my office rose by 7% to 251.
How well understood is FOI?
We have just published some opinion polling that shows that although 91% of Scottish adults are aware of the Freedom of Information Act, a smaller number, 71%, were aware of their rights under this Act. As well as enforcing the law, I have a statutory duty to promote FOI, ensuring people know they have a right to know and know how to use them to access the information they want to see, and my office is working to increase people’s awareness of their rights.
Your questions answered
We have just created a series of animations to help people understand FOI better, like this one:
We have also just updated our tips for elected members on our website. Here, we provide information to help Scotland’s elected members and others get the most out of FOI law. Here, we answer questions like:
- Who can I ask? (the short answer is any Scottish public authority)
- How do I ask? (the short answer is in any recordable format, giving your name and address)
- What can I ask for? (the short answer is any kind of information held by the authority)
- Can I make requests to multiple bodies? (the short answer is yes)
We also answer more specific questions about what FOI means for elected representatives like MSPs:
- Are elected members covered by FOI law? (the short answer is it depends why they hold the information)
- Do parliamentary questions count as FOI requests? (the short answer is no)
And for those more experienced FOI requesters, we even answer questions about technicalities of FOI law:
- What information is exempt from release? (there is no short answer, but FOI law allows authorities to use a limited number of exemptions)
- Why might my request be refused? (there is no short answer, but FOI law allows some limited provisions for refusing requests)
We operate an enquiries service, so if you have any questions that we’ve not covered already, then please telephone us on 01334 646410 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
So if you’ve never made an FOI request, never known where to go to get information, or ever wondered why you got the response you did to your request, then why not use this opportunity to find out more.
The Scottish Information Commissioner
Blog Image: copyright of Scottish Information Commissioner