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.
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