Scottish Government slammed on shambolic freedom of information system

By Bill Heaney

Scottish Government delays in responding to freedom of information (FoI) requests have been condemned as “extremely disappointing and wholly unacceptable”.

The outgoing Scottish Information Commissioner, Daren Fitzhenry, described government FoI procedures as “not fit for purpose” in a damning final report on his six-year investigation into the government’s FoI performance.

West Dunbartonshire Council has suggested that instead of asking them straightforward questions about public matters person to person The Dumbarton Democrat should submit their inquiries to the Council in writing via Freedom of Information requests.

This was outrageous and indeed ludicrous and spat in the face of democracy itself. It’s when you see what is happening in the Middle East at present that you come to realise the importance of rights such as press freedom.

The remit of Freedom of the Press would not run in Dumbarton until we joined a supervisory body known as IPSO, which succeeded the Press Council, another organisation which was found to be unfit for purpose. People are poorly served by our public bodies.

We were thrown out of a council meeting for asking politely if they could turn up the sound and place us in a seat where we could identify  who was speaking and hear what they were saying.

This is democracy Dumbarton-style in the 21st century when frankly the chief officers are ignorant of custom and practice so far as freedom of information is concerned.

Ignorance can be cured though through education and information. Stupid if forever.

They should be ashamed of themselves and sent on a course in media relations.

So too should the councillors, Jonathan McColl, who was leader of the then SNP administration, when this ban was first imposed, citing that I was a Labour stooge; the current Labour administration leader Martin Rooney and the Provost, Cllr Douglas McAllister, who is a lawyer and should know better.

Provost Douglas McAllister, Cllr Jonathan McColl and Cllr Martin Rooney – Labour and SNP are joined at the hip on this one.

Scottish Information Commissioner, Daren Fitzhenry, described government FoI procedures as “not fit for purpose” in a damning final report on his six-year investigation into the government’s FoI performance.

In West Dunbartonshire Council it appears that Labour and the SNP are joined at the hip.

A report in the highly respected investigative journal, The Ferret, revealed today the shambolic state of the Freedom of Information procedures under the SNP government.

Including the fact that there was a backlog of 117 FoI cases in May 2023; that some government FoI responses had been delayed for over two years, and that the role of political advisers was “ambiguous” and “anonymous”.

West Dunbartonshire Council were so vindictive that they refused answer e-mails from The Democrat and refused to supply information to help us caption accurately photographs which they themselves had sent us for publication.

According to today’s revelations it could have taken us up to two years to find out the identity of the person standing beside the Provost at a civic reception. Now that is madness.

That council taxpayers have to meet the cost of a PR department which can run to £500,000 a year is utterly disgraceful.

The Ferret story today says Freedom of information campaigners accused the Scottish Government of failing to learn from past mistakes and breaking promises to improve. They called for “urgent legal reform” to strengthen FoI law.

The Scottish Government have now stressed that it had made “significant progress” since May, and improved its FoI response rate. It remained committed to ensuring “openness and transparency”.

Let’s hope West Dunbartonshire Council is similarly regretful of its conduct and that it apologises for what they have done and endeavour to treat journalists with  more respect in future.

Darren Fitzhenry launched his intervention on the Scottish Government’s FoI performance in 2017. This followed concerns raised in the Scottish Parliament and in a letter from journalists, which The Ferret helped coordinate.

He published an initial report in 2018, followed by reports in 2019, 2020 and 2022. They all highlighted problems in the way the Scottish Government handled FoI requests, including delays, lack of training and poor records management.

On 12 October 2023, Fitzhenry’s penultimate day in office, he released his final progress report. It disclosed his alarm at a “deterioration” in the government’s FoI performance between 1 July 2022 and 31 March 2023.

He is not the only one who who is alarmed at the deterioration of public relations between the press and public bodies, including the police, who perceive it as their role, which it is not, to speak to the media and hand out photographs of those involved after court cases which the Crown wins, but seldom when the prosecution is on the losing side.

Their line in this is that the family have asked for their privacy to be respected on this occasion, which they probably wouldn’t do if they weren’t asked by the police in the first place.

Persons appearing in court and being found not guilty have just as much right to being vindicated publicly as the police have to be praised for what at the end of the day is simply doing the job they are paid for.

They have no right to prevent journalists from fulfilling their role in a democratic society.

One comment

Leave a Reply