Carole Ewart analyses the news this week that trust in Scottish charities has increased
Trust in charities has increased to an average of 7.02 out of 10, up from 6.14 in 2018 according to a survey just published by OSCR, which emphasises transparency and accountability are key in building reputation. Public sector bodies depend on public trust too and polling for the Scottish Information Commissioner in 2017 confirmed that 77% of the public would be more likely to trust an authority that publishes a lot of information about its work. Right to information laws are a key part of the equation as they allow people to choose what information is published and when.
This week FoI advocates globally are uniting to mark International Right to Know Day which was inspired by civil society in 2002, supported by UNESCO since 2015 and adopted by the UN in 2019. In 2020, the focus is on to the right to information in times of crisis and on the advantages of having enforceable rights and policy guarantees for public access to information ‘to save lives, build trust and help the formulation of sustainable policies through and beyond the COVID-19 crisis’. Civil society and governments are seizing the opportunity to meet virtually, discuss and evaluate performance on the duty to deliver transparency and accountability so people have better government.
Whether publication is pro-active or reactive, openness is the means to the end rather than the end in itself. Openness informs and encourages conversations, builds knowledge, counters fake news and provides credibility for evidenced based decision making. After all it’s in our collective interest to ensure organisations make good decisions generally and particularly in a national health, social and economic emergency.
The right to know and to form an opinion through accessing information is a human right: in Article 19 of ICCPR, Article 21 of the UNCRPD and Article 13 of the UNCRC. Article 10 of the ECHR is especially useful because it has been ruled to give the right to information in order to form an opinion when the matter is of public interest defined by four tests: the purpose of the information request; the nature of the information sought; the particular role of the seeker of the information in “receiving and imparting” it to the public; and whether the information was ready and available.
As we navigate our way through the pandemic and its impact across communities in Scotland, it is essential that our statutory right to access information remains strong. However three significant problems remain: the post legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Scotland Act 2020 (FoISA) made significant recommendations to update and strengthen rights but there is little prospect of imminent legislative reform; the 2019 consultation on extending the range of bodies to be covered by FoISA has now stalled despite huge changes in how and who delivers services of a public nature; there is a fallout, both cultural and operational, from the temporary, emergency changes to FOI law in Scotland from 1 April to 27 May.
For example, the commissioner recently found NHS Highland in breach of FoISA as the request was made during the time where FOI timescales were extended but the authority had failed to respond ‘promptly’. There are also backlogs in dealing with FoI requests in some authorities including the Scottish Government.
As this is a week of celebrations, I will end on a positive note. Let’s agree FoI reaps rewards so is essential, and not a hinderance, to successfully fighting Covid-19.
Carole Ewart is convenor of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland