The Scottish Government has been forced to withdraw all the emergency relaxations it made to freedom of information (FoI) law in April.
Opposition parties on Holyrood’s Covid-19 committee combined to vote down the government’s compromise plan to retain an extended 40-day deadline for public bodies to respond to FoI requests.
The deadline will now revert to 20 working days, as it was before, while other proposed deadline extensions have also been dropped. As a result all FoI deadlines will remain unchanged by the coronavirus pandemic.
MSPs also passed an amendment obliging the Scottish Government to report to parliament every two months on its handling of FoI requests during the pandemic. They required the Scottish Information Commissioner to rely on public interest when deciding whether FoI delays were reasonable.
The Ferret reported on 15 May that Scottish ministers were bowing to pressure from Conservative, Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat MSPs to abandon legal changes allowing public bodies up to a fivefold extension to the deadlines for responding to FoI requests.
Instead ministers proposed to shorten the deadlines so that the maximum wait would be cut from ten to three months. But that was rejected by the Scottish Parliament’s Covid-19 committee on 19 May.
The deadlines will now revert to what they were before April. This will allow public bodies up to 20 working days to respond to an initial FoI request and a further 20 working days to respond for a request for an internal review – two months in all.
The minister, Jenny Gilruth, accepted that most of the changes introduced in April by the government were “no longer necessary”. But she defended keeping the extended 40 working day deadline as a “carefully weighted compromise” that would give health boards, local authorities and the police the flexibility they needed.
She was criticised by the Conservative MSP, Adam Tomkins, who argued that the government’s changes were “neither necessary or appropriate”. All the opposition parties had united to condemn them, he said.
MSPs’ decisions were welcomed by campaigners. “We are relieved that amendments to FoI law in Scotland have been rolled back by the committee,” said Carole Ewart, convener of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland.
“If approved by all MSPs, the public can again expect responses to their FoI requests for information and internal requests for review to be delivered in a maximum of 20 working days.”
The campaign was very aware of the pressures on some public bodies, she added. “But we cannot sacrifice transparency and accountability during this health emergency.”
Lisa Mackenzie from the policy analysis collective, MurrayBlackburnMackenzie, was also pleased. “Open and transparent decision-making improves both accountability and legitimacy at a time when government and other public authorities are making literal life and death decisions on a daily basis,” she said.
The Labour MSP, Neil Findlay, said: “This was a pretty grubby attempt by the SNP to curtail FoI just at the time we need transparency most. I am very pleased that opposition parties have worked together to defeat this nonsense.”
The Green MSP, Ross Greer, said: “Confidence in government is critical right now but it depends on transparency. Restricting freedom of information was wrong and unnecessary, reflected but the fact that no other country in Europe has taken this step.”
The Ferret reported on 19 May that MSPs were recommending a new law requiring Scottish Government meetings to be minuted to prevent any “deliberate attempt” to evade FoI rules.
The cross-party Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee urged reforms to make “explicit” that ministers’ private emails and social media used for public business should not be exempt from FoI law.
Photo thanks to iStock/Bob Douglas.