FOI response times not good enough in Scotland, says watchdog

Out-Law News | 08 Aug 2014 | 2:29 pm | 1 min. read

Many public authorities in Scotland are failing to respond quickly enough to requests for information, the Scottish Information Commissioner's Office (SICO) has said.

The watchdog has published a new report highlighting the issue. It said 26% of all the freedom of information (FOI) appeals it investigated in the past three years have related to a public body's failure to respond to information requests (33-page / 2.99MB PDF), either at all or within the statutory time limit for responding.

"Failure to respond is a problem which threatens to undermine Scotland’s highly-respected FOI regime," the report said. "Many public authorities have shown that it is possible to respond on time to large volumes of requests, but too many authorities are still not doing so. Delays and obfuscation are not only damaging to authorities’ relationships with individual requesters but also Scotland’s reputation for openness and transparency."

Under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, and the equivalent legislation covering the rest of the UK, anyone of any nationality living anywhere in the world can make a written request for information to a designated public body. Public bodies are required to disclose the information sought unless at least one of a number of exemptions prohibiting disclosure applies or unless meeting the request is too costly or difficult. Public bodies can also decide not to provide information requested if they deem the request to be vexatious.

Individuals have a right to be issued with a response "promptly" and at worst within 20 working days.

The SICO said that problems are "more acute in some authorities than others" and that there is "little correlation between the size of an authority, the volume of requests it receives, and failure to respond rates". It said a lack of "effective FOI practices" might be behind response time failings.

"Improvement must come from within authorities, but requesters also have their part to play," the SICO's report said. "The example of some authorities has shown that positive action, with commitment from the top, can lead to significant improvement, even when there are high request numbers. To achieve improvements, authorities must understand the factors that drive their own performance. To achieve that understanding, as a minimum it is recommended they monitor and review their own performance as a matter of routine, embedding it in their governance and management systems."

The watchdog said that it hoped its report would draw greater attention to the issue of FOI response times and drive better compliance in future.