The new Minister for Parliamentary Business reflects on the Scottish Government’s 2019 report and its ongoing improvement journey in relation to Freedom of Information.
I am pleased to present the Scottish Government’s 2019 Annual Report on the handling of information requests made to us under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) and the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (EIRs).
In previous years, the report contained statistical detail on request handling allowing for a broad comparison with data contained in previous reports. Over the course of 2019 we welcomed a new case management system which ran in parallel with our former FOI tracker for much of the year, a gradual transition taking place between two systems over the course of the year. This has placed limitations on our ability to extract data on exactly the same basis as we have done in previous reports. Consequently the methodology in this 2019 report is a little different, drawing primarily on data previously provided to the Scottish Information Commissioner in our monthly performance reports.
This report nevertheless demonstrates that in 2019 the Scottish
Government made continued progress in its overall request handling performance, following the Commissioner’s Interventions, the ongoing implementation of the action plan agreed with the Commissioner and other positive steps taken. This is also reflected in the Commissioner’s Initial progress report from July 2019. The 2019 calendar year saw continuing high levels of information requests being made to the Scottish Government and its agencies. A total of 3,049 requests were received during this year. The number of requests for review have remained almost static since the previous year, at a total of 276.
In 2019, we responded to 93% of requests within the statutory 20 working day deadline (in the 2019-20 operational year, we achieved the Scottish Information Commissioner’s target of 95% for the operational year). We also responded to 85% of all requests for internal review on time.
I am pleased with the significant improvement in the Scottish Government’s request handling performance. However, our improvement journey - more recently interrupted by Covid - remains to be completed and we recognise there is no room for complacency.
Following the Commissioner’s intervention, his June 2018 intervention report and the agreed action plan in November 2018, 2019 saw continuous improvement as we implemented work to improve the effectiveness and robustness of our request handling process. This included an enhanced role for our central FOI Unit, the creation of a designated body of case handlers across the Scottish Government and changes to guidance, training and support for staff. Further information on the Scottish Information Commissioner’s Intervention can be found on the Commissioner’s website and on the Scottish Government’s website.
Over the course of 2019 we progressed action to take forward the extension of FOISA to Registered Social Landlords. In April 2019 the Scottish Parliament approved an Order under section 5 of the Act, designating Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) and their subsidiaries as subject to FOI from Monday 11 November 2019. The Commissioner has recently undertaken work to assess the experience of RSLs, after their first year of designation.
In 2019 we also carried out a public consultation on the future use of Scottish Ministers powers under section 5 to extend coverage of the Act to further entities, and contributed to the work of the Parliament’s Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee in undertaking post-legislative scrutiny of FOISA. We are continuing to take forward policy workstreams arising from both of those exercises.
Having recently assumed portfolio responsibility for FOI, I am pleased to inherit the firm foundation of operational improvement work and policy development activity which has been laid in recent years. The intervention of the Covid emergency in 2020 subsequently interrupted our progress in relation to both. However, we are now carrying these forward with renewed energy.
Access to information rights is a key pillar of our wider commitment to openness and our efforts to strengthen democratic participation in Scotland. As the responsible Minister I am determined to ensure that we continue to maintain a robust information rights regime and that the Scottish Government fully discharges its own obligations under that regime.