1. Ministerial Foreword
Like most modern democracies, Scotland has a statutory regime to provide people with access to information held by government and public services. In Scotland, this was first given effect by the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, passed by the Scottish Parliament with broad based cross party support in the early years of devolution and the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004, set under that Act. Both came into force in 2005, so by international standards the access to information rights regime in Scotland is relatively young.
The Parliament made changes to the regime in the Freedom of Information (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2013, to strengthen the requirement for openness. The legislation allowed us to shorten the time periods after which most of the exemptions within the legislation expire, and strengthened the protections against deliberate concealment of information by removing barriers to prosecution for offences under the legislation.
The Scottish Government welcomed the post-legislative scrutiny of the Act undertaken by the former Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee towards the end of the last session of the Parliament. We agreed that a decade and a half on from the original legislation coming into force, and the 2013 reforms having bedded in, the time was right for a fresh look at how the legislation was working for requesters, for public authorities subject to the legislation and their partners, and as a linchpin of democratic scrutiny in Scotland.
The report on post-legislative scrutiny raised some interesting issues and considerations in regard to the operation of the access to information rights regime. It produced a broad set of recommendations for areas where the Committee itself considered there was a need for further public consultation. The Scottish Government was pleased to agree that there should be a public consultation, to seek views from the wider public on the recommendations of the Committee. I am pleased that we are now able to take forward this consultation to seek those wider views and evidence, taking the Committee's recommendations as the starting point.
The Scottish Government believes the access to information rights framework in Scotland is fundamentally sound but we want to understand in greater depth how it is working for people and organisations in practice. Where there are opportunities to improve the operation of the regime within the existing statutory framework we want to identify and take those opportunities. We also want to gather further evidence and views regarding the need for any changes to the legislation in the future, to ensure it continues to be fit for purpose.
This consultation is intended to gather the views of a wide range of people and organisations in Scotland. I hope that a wide range of individuals and organisations with experience of exercising their rights under the access to information regime will respond to it. These include many civil society organisations, journalists, academics, elected representatives and their researchers as well as many members of the wider public who wish to better understand the information on which decisions by government and public services in Scotland may be based. I hope also that public authorities subject to the legislation will engage with consultation, with a view to how we can all ensure the access to information rights regime in functioning as intended.
I hope that private and third sector organisations who work in partnership with the public sector in Scotland will also engage with this consultation exercise. A key concern of the Committee's report was around whether access to information rights remain effective in relation to services delivered by the partners of public authorities. There was also recognition in the Committee's report of the need to take a considered approach to any changes which might add to the regulatory obligations of businesses and charities in Scotland. My awareness of the need for proportionality of approach is particularly acute in view of the current economic climate and the financial pressures faced by public authorities and their partners. Nevertheless, I am clear in my view that if there are clear and significant gaps in the public's right to access information about key services or the decisions which affect all our lives, these should be addressed.
I am confident that this consultation provides a platform for a productive continuation of the discussion of the issues raised by the post-legislative scrutiny report, and that this exercise will be fruitful in moving forward that discussion. The views and insights we gather through this process will be invaluable in enabling the Scottish Government to develop a considered position on the protection and future development of access to information rights in Scotland.
George Adam MSP
Minister for Parliamentary Business
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