Thursday, November 15, 2012

The SNP and Freedom of Information

In 2002, the Scottish Parliament passed freedom of information legislation that was much more robust than that passed by Labour in London. Want to take a wild guess why? That's what Lib Dem coalition partners do.

The then SNP opposition ended up voting for the legislation, although they said then that they thought it didn't go far enough. I had a good rummage round the interwebs today and found this from Roseanna Cummingham:

"I think parliament should feel some considerable satisfaction that it is debating a piece of legislation that underlines the difference between this Parliament and Westminster.
"Our freedom of information regime will certainly be much more robust than the Westminster proposals and I've absolutely no doubt campaigners in England and Wales will continue to emulate what we have here in Scotland."
However, Ms Cunningham said the Bill was "not perfect", highlighting three areas where the nationalists wanted to see changes made. These were class exemptions, ministerial vetoes and the cost of accessing information.
Finally, she urged the minister to "force the pace" on implementation of the Bill.
She said: "If they are given three, four or five years, then it is in the nature of things that they will take three, four or five years - that is human nature."
What a big difference 10 years and being in power make!

With the fiasco over the court case over legal advice on EU membership still fresh in our mind, we can also look to the Information Commissioner's scathing verdict on the SNP's record on FOI.

Today, the Scottish Parliament is debating the first stage of a bill which removes some FOI powers, such as publishing correspondence with Royal Family if it's in the public interest. This, apparently, and bizarrely from the SNP, is to bring us into line with the rest of the UK. So, from not going far enough when they were in opposition, they are now taking us backwards.

There are good practical reasons why we need to have a robust FOI system. The culture of secrecy at NHS Ayrshire and Arran was a disgrace and it took great persistence by a nurse to force the issue.

Willie Rennie talked about the importance of FOI at our Conference in Inverness just after Alex Salmond had refused to entertain the idea of widening powers to include arms length organisations like housing associations:

But my fear is that Ayrshire and Arran is only the tip of the iceberg.I think they are institutionally secret. But what about the rest of the public service? We need a Scotland-wide investigation into the practices and procedures of every single NHS board, every police authority and every department of government.
So that we can proudly say that the institutions of our country are honest, open and accountable.
That’s not because it’s nice to do but because it really matters – learning the lessons from patient deaths, rooting out bad government and holding the powerful to account.It may be awkward to those in charge but information and power is safer when it is shared.
That’s why I appeal to the First Minister today to commit to extend the laws to housing associations, PFI companies and the other government bodies that can cut corners and who can dodge and delay.
We deserve to hear from them and I want action from the First Minister to make sure that happens
 While supporting the general principles of the Bill, the Scottish Parliament's Finance Committee had some concerns. 

77. The Committee notes the views expressed by the Cabinet Secretary in evidence. However, the Committee notes the report from Audit Scotland which identifies around 130 major ALEOs and shares the concerns of witnesses set out above.
 78. While the Committee recognises the Scottish Government’s intention to defer consideration of the extension of coverage until the Bill has been considered by Parliament, it invites the Cabinet Secretary to provide details and timings of how the Scottish Government intends to take forward this work and clarify what the options are which she is ‘actively considering’, including the possibility of Stage 2 amendments to section 5 of the 2002 Act. In the light of this response, the Committee will reconsider its position on this issue at Stage 2.
They also don't much like the absolute exemption for Royal Family. 

Ahead of today's debate, Willie Rennie said:
I strongly support the Finance Committee’s calls for the Scottish Government to set out firm plans for the extension of Freedom of Information laws. For too long the SNP has given vague signs of support towards extending freedom of information, but they have yet to set out stall of what they would extend.
There is an increasing anxiety that more and more government funded bodies are escaping scrutiny. We’re supposed to be improving openness and transparency, not secrecy. The Scottish Government must set out how and when it plans to ensure the public’s right to information follows the public pound.

The big issue is that bodies such as the construction company building the new Forth crossing are using large amounts of public money but aren't subject to the same scrutiny as a Government organisation. The same goes with housing associations. A secretive government at national or local level can hive off key decisions and functions to arms length bodies that aren't covered automatically by the legislation. That's not good enough. There has to be a presumption of openness unless there's a very good reason for that not to be the case.

As I write, Nicola Sturgeon has been speaking in the Chamber and has given some encouraging signs that she is prepared to consider extending the powers of the Bill. We'll see how far she is prepared to go when she brings forward the amendments at Stage 2. 

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