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Robust action promise by UNISON over some public bodies' poor FOI practice

21st November 2017

A new reminder from the Scottish Information Commissioner that public bodies must respond within legal time limits was welcomed today by UNISON.

The trade union pledged to robustly chase up councils, health boards and other public bodies that fail to respond on time, following the Commissioner's criticism of Glasgow City Council.

In Decision 188/2017 the Commissioner ruled that Glasgow City Council failed to respond in time to UNISON's request for information about building standards. This meant the information it later sent was too late to be used in UNISON's report examining action across councils.

The Commissioner said: "This illustrates the importance of authorities responding timeously to requests for information."

Recent meetings of the reconvened Scottish Public Information Forum noted that many organisations, journalists and campaigners are regularly frustrated by late responses or sometimes no responses to Freedom of Information requests, in breach of legislation.

Dave Watson, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, said that the Commissioner has supported UNISON’s decision to robustly chase up late responses, request reviews for failures to respond and appeal to the Commissioner.

He added: "UNISON regularly uses FOI requests to compile information across a range of public bodies, for example, on violence at work, about the numbers of assaults on public service workers.

"Like other organisations, and in common with journalists, we want to have a full picture of what is happening across Scotland, as we did on building standards in this case. That is not possible if we don’t get responses and it happens too frequently, totally in contravention of the legislation.

"We noted in our review request and our appeal to the Commissioner that workers involved in dealing with requests - often our members - can be under immense pressure due to austerity staffing cuts. But FOI legislation must be adhered to and public bodies should ensure they have sufficient staff to do this.

“Glasgow City Council said in their responses to the Commissioner that funding of new staff positions within its FOI team has been approved.

“However, in the meantime, we note that our recent FOI on roads was acknowledged by the council, but no response was received in time."

Last week the Commisioner, Daren Fitzhenry, revealed a further intervention into Scottish Government practice on FOI, following concerns raised by MSPs after journalists complained about the Scottish Government’s responses to FOI requests, including delayed responses.

This follows on from action earlier this year by the Commissioner, seeking to have the Scottish Government improve its compliance rates with statutory timescales for FOI requests and reviews.

Dave added: “We plan further appeals to the Commissioner when our FOI requests do not receive responses. It is unacceptable and we intend insisting on our rights to information, as enshrined in legislation. We encourage other organisations to do the same, although it is time consuming. We hope such action will help improve response times across all public bodies."

- Decision 188/2017 is published in the Decisions section of the Scottish Information Commissioner website at https://www.itspublicknowledge.info/ApplicationsandDecisions/Decisions/Decision_Listing.aspx

- The issue of failure to respond within statutory timescales was discussed, among many other FOI concerns, at meetings of the reconvened Scottish Public Information Forum this year. Minutes of the May meeting are here https://www.cfoi.org.uk/2017/06/minutes-of-spif-meeting-friday-12th-may-2017/

- The September meeting heard about a big increase in failures to respond, noted by the Scottish Information Commissioner. https://mobile.twitter.com/CampaignFOIScot/status/913395326232530945?p=v

- UNISON funded a report The Post Legislative Scrutiny of FOISA, by the Campaign for Freedom of Information Scotland, published in June 2017. In his introduction, Dave Watson referred to failure to respond and other problems, including pressures on those dealing with FOI requests due to public spending cuts leading to reduced staffing levels. http://www.unison-scotland.org/library/Learning-from-Others-Final-Report.pdf

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