John McLellan, left, who previously edited The Scotsman and the Edinburgh Evening News, said in a column for Glasgow-based daily The Herald that special advisers to the Scottish government are screening FoI responses for potential political issues.
John, who currently serves as director of the Scottish Newspaper Society, added that spin doctors are handling requests rather than the officials responsible for the information.
He also claimed the Scottish National Party-led government’s political team regularly takes control of requests to other agencies.
Wrote John: “Key to open government are the Freedom of Information Acts, designed to make access to records easier with rules for officials to follow. Requests can be refused for reasons of security and commercial confidentiality or because the cost is excessive, but a clear guiding principle is that embarrassment, political or personal, is not a valid reason for rejection.
“Yet it is now alleged that special advisers are routinely screening FoI responses for potential political problems, and spin doctors are handling requests rather than officials responsible for the information.
“It is also claimed the Government’s political team regularly takes control of requests to other agencies. In other words, the people whose job is to spread a positive message about the Scottish government are trying to make sure that nothing gets out which could cause a political headache. It’s the opposite of openness.”
He added: “There are further allegations, which all point towards an approach designed to make the general FoI process as sluggish as possible, even if there is no political imperative; information releases repeatedly delayed beyond the statutory deadlines without reason, requests for updates on progress ignored and internal reviews being used to further hamper availability.
“With appeals to the Information Commissioner often resulting in a ping-pong of correspondence, it can take the best part of a year from the initial request to final publication.
“This is where the information actually exists, but there is growing concern that awareness of FoI legislation inside government, both Scottish and UK, means steps are taken to ensure there is nothing to disclose; so meetings are not held in official places, minutes are not taken and official email accounts are avoided. The question ‘Is that FoI-able?’ is common in official circles, and the answer is not ‘Yes, no problem.'”
When approached for a comment, the Scottish government referred HTFP to a password-protected area of the scot.gov site containing guidance issued to its staff on how to handle FoI requests.
A spokesman said: “Scotland’s Freedom of Information legislation is internationally respected and we are committed to improving openness and transparency.”