Common Weal has campaigned for greater levels of government scrutiny and transparency since our inception and this campaign has included a long standing principle that current Freedom of Information legislation in Scotland could be greatly improved and should be greatly expanded. It is absolutely vital for the security of a democracy that decisions are made openly and are open to scrutiny by the general public. Politicians and those in power often dislike such transparency – if only because it is effective at uncovering their own failures in office – but this is all the more reason to insist on it. Common Weal is also concerned about tendencies to outsource and privatise public services which can often remove them from the scope of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act – also known as FOISA. As legislation currently stands, it is possible to submit an FOI request to a publicly-owned Care Home but it is not possible to submit the same FOI request to a privately-owned Care Home whose sole “customer” is the public body who used to run said home until they sold it off. Similarly, a great deal of public money is spent each year by private companies in a manner that is shielded from public scrutiny under the guise of “commercial confidentiality”.
More broadly than merely reforming and expanding FOISA Common Weal supports a “Glass Wall” approach to transparency whereby FOI legislation should ultimately be expanded to cover all uses of public money, whether spent “in house” by a public body, is outsourced to a private company or is used to provide a public service by any other means. We simultaneously campaign for the statutory duty for the pro-active publication of all information that could conceivably be published under current or future expanded FOISA legislation such that the actual, practical effect is that requests to an identified data handler within an organisation become one means of locating already public information rather than the sole means of uncovering information and bringing it into the public domain. The limit of democratic transparency cannot and should not be the ability to frame a question in such a way that it reveals the desired information.
Many of the issues raised in this consultation have been raised in previous rounds of post- legislative scrutiny – such as in 2019 – and Common Weal is disappointed that reform has taken so long to reach the Scottish Government’s attention and that it has apparently only done so due to pressure brought by Opposition MSPs such as Katy Clark MSP. However we are supportive of this consultation even though our responses have not fundamentally changed in the past several years. We expect that this round of review shall result in the Government, this time, implementing agreed reforms without further delay.