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Scottish Government takes longer to reply to Freedom of Information requests from journalists

The Scottish Government takes longer to reply to journalists’ Freedom of Information requests than other requests, a report by the Scottish Information Commissioner has found.

However the Commissioner, Daren Fitzhenry, found only one instance in which there was any evidence that the delay in responding to journalists had been deliberate.

Journalists, plus MSPs and political researchers, are expressly made subject to a different process for clearance than other FOI requesters to the Scottish Government, which means they are faced with an additional layer of clearance which is likely to delay the case.

The Commissioner found: “It is an important principle of FOI law that, in most cases, it should not matter who asks for information.

“The practice of referring requests for clearance by Ministers simply because they come from journalists, MSPs and researchers is inconsistent with that principle.”

Twenty-five per cent of responses to media requests are issued late, compared to 21 per cent for other requester types.

The National Union of Journalists warned that journalists should “not be treated as second-class citizens” by the Government.

John Toner, NUJ Scotland organiser, said: “Daren Fitzhenry’s report is a serious and shaming indictment of the Scottish Government, and it clearly confirms what many journalists have suspected for some time.

“Journalists act on behalf of the public, and should not be treated as second-class citizens.

“We note that the SNP government has accepted the recommendations in full, but this is clearly an issue that we will continue to monitor.”

The report found that the Scottish Government’s FOI practice has “improved significantly” in the past year since Fitzhenry’s first intervention, as average response time to all requests, including those from journalists, have reduced.

But the Commissioner recommended a change in the way media requests are handled.

The report said: “Requests made under FOISA [Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act] and the EIRs [Environmental Information Regulations] are, generally, ‘applicant blind’ and ‘purpose blind’.

“It is inherently wrong that a class of requesters is treated differently when
processing requests for information solely because of who or what they are. This covers not only journalists, but also MSPs and political researchers.

“I strongly recommend that the Scottish Government ends this practice. Of course, this would not prevent a clearance system based on the sensitivity on the information sought and/or the complexity of the case. While such a system may still capture many requests from those groups, it will be based on a consideration of the request and not of the person.”

The report also recommended improvements to quality assurance of FOI response, training, review processes, case handling and case records management.

Minister for Parliamentary Business Joe Fitzpatrick said: “Being open and transparent is a priority set out in our current Programme for Government.

“We welcomed and cooperated fully with the Scottish Information Commissioner’s review and are happy to accept his recommendations in full to support our continued improvement.

“As the report highlights, we have already implemented a number of changes that have resulted in significant improvements to our FOI performance.

“In the first five months of 2018 we responded to 93% per cent of FOI requests on time, exceeding the 90 per cent target set by the Information Commissioner and a 10 per cent increase on last year.

“Outside the FOI process, last year the Scottish Government responded to over 5,000 queries from journalists in a matter of hours.

“Whilst the Commissioner makes clear in his assessment that he has found no evidence to substantiate a number of the criticisms that have been made about the Scottish Government’s approach we are determined to learn from this review, to further improve our performance and to further enhance our position as an open government.

“Working with the Commissioner we will produce an action plan to take forward these recommendations.”

The Commissioner’s assessment included analysis of 7,318 FOI requests received by the Scottish Government between December 2014 and December 2017, inspection of 104 FOI case files, and examination of 87 appeals to the Commissioner about the Government’s handling of FOI requests.

He also carried out face-to-face interviews with 31 Scottish Government officials and four Cabinet Secretaries.

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