Thursday, March 26, 2009

Secret Scotland : Freedom of Information ‘revolution’ will exclude Scottish Government Ministers

The recent review of Freedom of Information legislation in Scotland, and which organisations should also be brought under the scope of FOI is causing consternation among many bodies, for fear they will be revealed to be a complete waste of space & time (we knew that anyway – Ed)

However, the Scottish Government Ministers have decided to exempt themselves from the planned changes on FOI .. so, secrecy for some, not so much secrecy for others (sounds like business as usual ! - Ed)

Ministers to 'free' all information – except their own

Published Date: 26 March 2009
By David Maddox

A REVOLUTION in freedom of information (FOI) could take place in Scotland in the next few months, as ministers mull over responses to a consultation on the issue.

But ministers have no plans to extend the powers to cover their work, and the changes, even though they could transform the way business is done in Scotland, will not lead to a single new line of legislation.

The Scottish Government wants to force housing associations, bodies set up by local authorities such as leisure trusts, contractors delivering public services and companies involved in private finance initiatives all to be subject to FOI.

It is a proposal that has brought dire warnings from business groups and a flood of protest from the private sector during the consultation, which closed on 12 January.

However this extension of FOI powers, which would make Scotland the most open country in the UK, is likely to be introduced without much scrutiny in parliament by using an order made via devolved powers with no new legislation.

The powers to introduce this extension exist under Section 5 of the Freedom of Information Act, although the move would need to be rubber-stamped by MSPs in a vote on a statutory instrument.

Attempts to do something similar with minimum pricing on alcohol caused a storm of protest inside and outside Holyrood, and led to questions over what the purpose of a Scottish Parliament is, if it does not have proper scrutiny and formulate legislation on major changes. But even more eyebrows were raised in the past week after SNP ministers showed no desire to make themselves subject to any extension of FOI.

They rejected a request by The Scotsman for the publication of Cabinet minutes from February, when the SNP decided to drop its election manifesto pledge of replacing the council tax with a local income tax.

This rejection came despite an earlier SNP attack on the UK government for not publishing minutes of the Cabinet meeting where it was decided Britain should go to war in Iraq, ignoring a ruling by the Information Commissioner for England and Wales. In both cases, the reason for refusal given was to "protect free and frank exchanges" between ministers.

The refusal was a marked difference to an exchange during First Minister's Questions a week before, when Alex Salmond responded to SNP MSP Christine Grahame on the issue.

"I certainly agree that this (Scottish] government is much more accountable and transparent than the Labour government in London," he said, to her assertion that the UK government was "secretive".

The Conservative chief whip, David McLetchie, agreed with the ruling, but accused the SNP of "politically cherry-picking" when it came to FOI. "They cannot reasonably expect to extend FOI to the private sector but not to themselves," he said.

Mr McLetchie suggested the SNP was using FOI powers to target groups it disliked politically, especially those related to PFI contracts and those contracting out public-sector work to the private sector.

He said: "While free and frank exchange needs to be protected for ministers, so does commercial confidentiality for companies."

Despite this, Mr Salmond, in his exchanges with Ms Grahame, gave a strong indication that the Scottish Government planned to press ahead with the proposal and implied he had a political motive to do it.

"One matter that is certainly of public interest and should be focused on is the previous excuses for not revealing the full extent of private finance contracts and obligations on the public sector, which are threadbare," he said.

The consultation results show almost universal support for FOI, but each agreement is almost always accompanied with a reason why it should not be extended. Only the Campaign for Freedom of Information Scotland has wholeheartedly backed the move, arguing that local government in particular avoided public scrutiny by farming out work to the private sector.

Businesses and their representatives have led the arguments against the move. Contractors, such as Balfour Beatty, warned the extension would add to costs from extra bureaucracy and raised concerns about releasing commercially sensitive information to their rivals.

CBI Scotland warned that the proposed extension would drive companies away from Scotland, claiming that, if companies were less exposed in England, they were more likely to do business south of the Border.

"An extension of FOI coverage could potentially act as a regulatory deterrent to private-sector contractors," its consultation submission read.

Housing associations and private-sector suppliers said the plans would create a new level of regulation.

The Scottish Government has said it will take its time to come to a conclusion, but the indications are that all the protests will fall upon deaf ears.

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