Dear Editor,

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted calls for the Freedom of Information Act to be relaxed and led some public authorities to announce that they will stop answering FOI requests. 

However, pressure for FOI time limits to be formally extended has been averted, probably by the Information Commissioner’s Office’s announcement that it will not penalise public authorities for failing to meet deadlines during the crisis. Deadlines under Scotland’s FOI Act, by contrast, have been substantially relaxed.

Many public authorities are now warning requesters that responses to FOI requests may be delayed. Some are asking requesters to consider limiting their requests to the minimum information they need, deferring requests for the time being or withdrawing those previously made.

These authorities are seeking requesters’ understanding and co-operation. Such suggestions, particularly from front-line authorities, should be treated seriously especially while the crisis remains so grave.

Other authorities are simply suspending their FOI function altogether and saying they will not answer requests at all until further notice.  It is hard to judge what the case for such an approach is without knowing the circumstances of the authorities concerned.

However, at a time of an unprecedented threat to public safety, vast public expenditure, extraordinary emergency powers, allegations of huge failures to plan for foreseeable events and threats to NHS staff highlighting risks to their own safety, compelling questions are being asked.

They may not all be answerable within normal timescales. But authorities such as West Dunbartonshire Council which appear to treat the right to know as a disposable extra may lose public trust when they most need it.

Katherine Gundersen

Campaign for Freedom of Information

One comment

  1. West Dunbartonshire Council is a disgrace.

    Death stalks the area as Coronavirus impacts. Eleven deaths in ten days in one care home already. More deaths in other homes too. Complaints of severe shortages of PPE to frontline carers and NHS staff.

    And the response from the Council and the elected representatives is a big zilch. Not one comment. Not one opinion about the equipment shortages. Keeping the death tally unreported and minimised, keeping silent about equipment shortages. Refusing to speak to the press. Suspending freedom of information response times.

    At least the Gauleiters of the Conservative neo-liberal policy that implemented the strategy of deliberately allowing the virus to spread because it was all about …….” herd immunity, protect the economy, and if a few pensioners die, too bad “ are sitting back getting their pay.

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