Call For More Use Of FOI Laws

22 December 2015, 08:23 | Updated: 22 December 2015, 08:27

People are being "kept in the dark'' over publicly-funded projects delivered by private firms and arm's-length organisations because of a failure to extend freedom-of-information laws, the Liberal Democrats have said.

The Scottish Government has the power to extend FoI to third parties that provide public services but has done so only once, when it brought arm's-length organisations established by local authorities to provide leisure, cultural and sporting services under its scope.

Lib Dem MSP Tavish Scott has argued multi-million pound deals with private firms delivering schools, hospitals and major infrastructure projects are not being fully scrutinised.

Earlier this year, the Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew criticised the lack of progress in extending FoI coverage, describing the power to do so as "woefully underused over the last 10 years''.

Her report concluded the scope of the legislation had, in fact, been reduced since it came into force in 2005 and rights to access information have diminished.

She recommended ministers develop a policy that requires automatic consideration of the transfer of FoI rights and duties when bodies take over delivery of services from public authorities.

Ministers should develop and adopt a "factor-based approach'' to the extension of FoI to bodies in relation to those functions the ministers consider to be "of a public nature'', Ms Agnew said.

She also called for a review to identify where rights to information have been lost, and for those to be reinstated, and for ministers to create and maintain a register of arm's-length organisations.

Mr Scott said: "The commissioner very clearly recommended that Scottish ministers should be using the Act more to make organisations more accountable.

"They like to boast about the number of schools being built across the country and how it's promoting the multi-million-pound construction industry, but it seems they prefer to keep the details of their deals secret.

"The SNP has been in power for eight years now and since being in government they have extended FoI just once.

"But the public don't just want to know about the workings of culture and leisure trusts, they want to know about the contractors maintaining our roads, the construction firms building our schools and the housing associations providing shelter.

"The Scottish Liberal Democrats want to strengthen and extend the FoI rights of the public while SNP ministers want to keep working in the shadows.''

The Scottish Government conducted a consultation during the summer on proposals to extend FoI to contractors who run privately-managed prisons, providers of secure accommodation for children, grant-aided schools and independent special schools.