Next week the Police Service of Scotland will take responsibility for policing Scotland from the current eight police forces in Scotland. This will have implications for Freedom of Information, at least in the short-term.
The cost of handling an FOI request is likely to increase dramatically meaning that requestors may frequently have their requests refused under section 12 of the Act (excessive cost of compliance). The new single force will continue to run eight separate IT systems while new IT systems are procured and launched. Undoubtedly it will take some time for information held in paper form to be better organised taking account of the new single force structure. Therefore, searching for information held by the new force will be rather time consuming. In some requests the new force will be required to carry out the same searches within each of the boundaries of the eight forces; if some of the old forces held the requested information on multiple systems then you could be looking at more than eight almost identical searches per request. That’s a lot of staff time simply locating whether the information is held by the force.
It is likely that most requestors will only want the information as it relates to their old force area and so it might be worthwhile for the next year or so ensuring that when you are requesting information that you are as geographically specific as possible. For example, if you would have requested the information from only Strathclyde Police were it still in existence, then state in your request that you are only interested in the information held which relates to the old Strathclyde area.
Currently if you wish a nationwide view then you would be requesting the information from the eight forces and the cost to each force would be separate from the other forces. However, now you will be requesting it from a single body meaning the cost of searching within each of the old force areas is burdened by one organisation (the new single force). As a consequence of this it will be aggregated and might engage section 12 much more easily than before.
When the new force comes into existence it will be under a great level of scrutiny to ensure that it is delivering what is needed in Scotland, but it may well become more difficult for the public and journalists to hold the force to account through FOI.
It will certainly be worthwhile watching the responses from the new single force to see if there is an increase in the number of section 12 refusals. An increase would mean less public scrutiny of a very large public authority with an enormous budget and a significant amount of power.