Should Scotland Care about the Freedom of Information Act 2000?

So, the Government is looking to change the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). What does that mean for Scotland?  We do have our own FOI legislation in Scotland: the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA).  It provides rights of access to bodies such as the police, the Scottish Government our local authorities and many more organisations who spend public money and have influence over our lives.  Should Scottish people really be worried about any changes to the FOIA?  Well, aside from ensuring that those in the rest of the UK can access information from public bodies the FOIA does apply to Scotland as well.

Not every public authority who delivers services in Scotland is a “Scottish Public Authority” and therefore subject to the provisions of FOISA.  Some examples include: the British Transport Police (who are responsible for policing our railways and railway stations); HMRC (the taxman); the Home Office (immigration, passports etc.); The House of Commons; The House of Lords; the Ministry of Defence and the BBC.

As you can see some big public authorities who carry out a great deal of work in Scotland (some of whom exercise coercive powers) are subject to the provisions of the FOIA rather than FOISA.  While the Scottish Government might not, at this stage, be considering major changes to FOISA that will restrict information access rights under that Act the rights of Scots to access information for some public authorities is threatened by an attack on FOI by the UK Government.

BBC Newsnight held a brief debate tonight (5/04/12) on FOI (but after the switch to Newsnight Scotland had occurred) which came off the back of papers they had seen suggesting the Government will seek to introduce a new fee structure to the FOIA.  This might mean flat fees for information requests or mean people being asked to pay large sums of money to see information that they should have an absolute right to.  It might mean that requests don’t get made that might very well release information that is very much in the public interest.  This can be done simply by passing secondary legislation and could very well be done on the side without anyone actually noticing until the new fee regulations come into force.  It wouldn’t be the first time that major changes to law have been made by way of regulations without anyone actually noticing.

In essence, this post is all about why Scots should get behind the campaign to save the FOIA.  It’s not irrelevant to us even though we have FOISA.  FOI might seem like a waste of money or something that’s not very important.  It is though.  It gives each individual the right to ask public authorities for information and for that information to be given to you unless there is a very good reason not to.  Without FOI you can ask but public authorities wouldn’t need any reason other than “we don’t want to” in order to not give it to you.  You would have no way of challenging them and forcing them to release the information.  Would the MPs expenses scandal ever have come to light without FOI, almost certainly it would not have.  That’s just one example of how FOI has benefited the public.

I would urge everyone in the UK, even if you’re in Scotland, to get behind the campaign to Save the FOIA.  One thing you can do is sign this petition on the Government’s e-petitions website.  The other thing you can do is write to your MP.  You can also write to your MP on this excellent website by MySociety.