On 28 September 2002 in Sofia, Bulgaria a group of Freedom of Information organisations from around the world proposed having a day to raise people’s awareness of their right of access to information, as well as to promote freedom of information as essential to good governance and democracy. The day was to be called ‘International Right to Know Day’, and it is marked each year by freedom of information organisations and advocates to both celebrate freedom of information and to raise awareness of it.
Last week the Scottish Information Commissioner published her annual report in which it was reported that awareness of the right to access information is high among Scotland’s population. The Commissioner’s report stated that 84% of people said that they are aware of FOI, the highest level recorded. Scotland benefits from the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 in relation to information and environmental information held by UK public bodies. It also benefits from the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 and the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 in relation to information and environmental information held by public bodies in Scotland.
Earlier this month a Scottish Government consultation closed on extending the provisions of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (and thereby also the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004) to a number of bodies not already covered by the legislation. Meanwhile, the UK Government announced in July that it had established a commission to look at the Freedom of Information Act and its operation; the terms of reference of that commission have broadly been interpreted as being about restricting information access rights.
The right to know is an important one that has seen lots of important information released over the years. The MPs expenses scandal came about partly as a result of FOI and we also know about the matters and issues that HRH the Prince of Wales has lobbying Ministers about as a consequence of FOI. On a local level people have been able to uncover in much more detail what has been going on in their local councils, police forces and NHS services. If you are interested to see the sorts of information that have been released over the years then you can visit www.whatdotheyknow.com, a website that enables individuals to make Freedom of Information requests. All requests made via the site are published online, including the authority’s response. The site has been going since 2008 and hundreds of thousands of requests have been made using it since then; so there is highly likely to be something on there that interests you. If there is anything you would like to know about what the Government or your local council/police force/NHS services are doing you could even use WhatDoTheyKnow to make a request and find out.
The right to know doesn’t just extend to public authorities in Scotland or the UK. There are freedom of information rights in relation to the European Union and its institutions. This right, in the UK at least, is probably a lot less well known than the domestic rights to access information. With a referendum on our continued membership of the EU on the cards in 2017 it would seem like a good opportunity to get to know what the EU does and how it does it. There is a website that uses the same software and principals as WhatDoTheyKnow, called AskTheEU, for information access requests to the EU. It can be found at www.asktheeu.org.
When the Justice Select committee conducted its post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, it concluded that the Act “has been a significant enhancement of our democracy” which has “improved openness, transparency and accountability”. The committee also stated that they did “not believe that there has been any general harmful effect at all on the ability to conduct business in the public service” and in their view “the additional burdens are outweighed by the benefits.”
If you think that Freedom of Information is important and shouldn’t be restricted you can use www.writetothem.com to write to your MP asking them to protect the FOI Act.