Campaigners hope a new bill will help extend the reach of FoI so that it applies to voluntary sector services
On 1 April 2022, the ScotRail franchise moves from Abellio ScotRail to ScotRail Trains, a publicly owned company.
Automatically the new company will enable the public to assert enforceable access to information rights established 20 years ago, under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FoISA).
FoISA provides legal certainty on accessing information. Abellio was covered by the Environmental Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 following a ruling by the Scottish Information Commissioner in March 2021, proving that the haphazard approach to openness and accountability in publicly funded services needs to be overhauled.
In the absence of government action, the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoiS) offers certainty via its freedom of information (Scotland) (no2) bill which provides an integrated system applying to third sector organisations too.
The bill will update and enhance scrutiny of decisions that impact on the public by companies and organisations delivering publicly funded services such as health and social care.
The public supports reform. Scottish Information Commissioner polling in 2019 found that 80% of survey respondents agreed that private sector companies working on contracts for public bodies should be subject to the same FOI laws as public bodies. Usefully CFoiS’ bill will deliver Goal 16.6 of Sustainable Development Goals to “develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels”.
Increasingly third sector organisations are delivering publicly funded services. Like their public sector counterparts they are subject to external regulation including by the UK Information Commissioner on Data Protection law plus sector specific regulation including the Care Inspectorate which regulates, among other services, care homes for adults in Scotland.
Providing the public with consistency on access to information rights is a priority, whether the care is delivered by a charity, private company or public provider, the duty to disclose must follow the spend of the public pound.
Voluntary initiatives cannot replace enforceable legal rights. The Open Government Partnership’s Third National Action Plan includes actions on health and social care. A welcome development but evidence of specific impact is needed.
Access to information is a human right: Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights allocates all with the freedom to form an opinion by “seeking, receiving and imparting information and ideas”. Our rights are a tool to provide the evidence that human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled equally.
Access to information rights helps make the third sector stronger by addressing frustrations. Repeatedly we are funded to pilot projects which yield positive impacts and provide excellent value for money but the evaluation reports rarely see the light of day. If publicly available, they may generate effective informed conversations and tailored services. Staff would also have ready access to information on grants applied for so they are assured that the correct number of staff are employed to deliver projects at the rate of pay funders approve.
Ironically, fundraising staff are often the most engaged on promoting transparency and accountability as it builds public trust and makes voluntary donations more likely. Governance standards are ticked as the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) requires registered charities to be transparent and accountable.
An organisation’s designation under FoISA should be regarded as an asset rather than a liability so please support the CFoIS bill to progress an integrated and fair approach to transparency and accountability.
Carol Ewart is convener of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland. More information at www.cfois.scot/