AddThis SmartLayers

Daily voices concern over changes to Scottish FoI system

FOIPlans to create a ‘two tier’ Freedom of Information system in Scotland has been criticised by a daily newspaper and campaigners.

The Scottish government is planning to give independent special schools and grant-aided schools up to 60 working days to provide information under the FoI Act, extending the 20 day limit usually afforded to public bodies.

The change, which will allow the schools to effectively discount holiday periods when considering time limits, was agreed after the institutions argued that they were too small to cope with the 20-day burden in holiday periods.

But Glasgow-based daily The Herald has described the changes as “concerning” in a leader.

It reads: “On the face of it, the change may look benign, but The Campaign for Freedom of Information is right to express concern that the FOI legislation could be undermined in the longer term.

“When it was passed in 2002, it was regarded as one of the world’s strongest laws on access to information, but in the years since, there has been a worry that changes in the way public services are delivered has put some publicly-funded organisations outwith the remit of the law, which is unacceptable: any organisation that spends public money should be subject to FOI.

“Every public body should also be required to respond to requests timeously. One of the strengths of FOI is that the rules, including the 20-day limit, apply across the board, and there is a danger that changing the rule for one could lead to changing it for others.

“Allowing some schools 60 days to respond is not in itself a profound challenge to the legislation, but what is to stop other organisations making the same arguments and one chip in the law leading to another? Freedom of information is a law we should be proud of, but it needs to be robustly protected.”

According to The Herald, some local councils have already called for the extension to apply to all schools due to lengthy holiday periods.

Last year the Society of Editors launched its ‘Hands Off FoI’ campaign in conjunction with HoldtheFrontPage and Press Gazette

Charis Bartter, from the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland, said: “This creates a two-tier system. It will create confusion for applicants, who will wonder what rules apply to them, and reduces the rights for some of society’s most vulnerable people.

“Normal public sector schools have been covered by the 20 day limit since the law was introduced and it hasn’t caused them any problems.”