THE Scottish Government is facing fresh accusations of abusing freedom of information legislation after new figures revealed higher refusal rates for journalists than other applicants.

Civil servants have also been responding later to requests from MSPs than to the population at large.

Neil Findlay, a Labour MSP, said: “This system is being abused and it is destroying trust in government."

Loading article content

Under FOI legislation any individual has a right to recorded information held by hundreds of devolved public bodies. Authorities have 20 days to respond and disputes are adjudicated on by the Scottish Information Commissioner.

However, in June, journalists from across Scotland’s media signed a letter raising concerns about the way the SNP Government handles requests.

The Government was accused of failing to keep records of important meetings and of allowing special advisers – essentially political hires by Ministers – to screen responses.

The journalists, including reporters from the Herald and the Sunday Herald, warned that they had become “increasingly concerned about the way in which the legislation is being interpreted and implemented”.

Figures obtained by Scottish Labour, which map out the total number of requests over seven full financial years, have fuelled calls for reform.

In the seven years, the Government failed to meet the 20-day deadline for between 20 per cent and 32 per cent of all requests tabled.

For information requests submitted by elected members, the percentage of questions not answered on time was higher in every year.

In 2015/16, the total failure rate was 21 per cent, but for elected members it was 43 per cent. In the following year, the figure for the whole country was was 28 per cent, compared to 39 per cent for politicians.

In the same seven-year period, the Scottish Government refused to release information requested by all sections of society, in part or in full, between 35 per cent and 49 per cent of the time.

For the media, the refusal rate was higher in every full financial year covered by the figures. In 2015/16, 38% of all requests were partially or fully refused; for journalists, the figure was 47%. Last year, the numbers were 35% (overall) and 37% for the media.

Findlay said: "These laws are supposed to increase transparency and accountability of government, but the handling of freedom of information requests in recent times has all the hallmarks of a secretive government desperate to dodge scrutiny."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “In the majority of cases, the Scottish Government responds on time and in full to FOI requests. The increasing volume and complexity of some requests can, however, prove time consuming and has the potential to impact seriously on the work of government. The number of FOI requests we receive has risen by almost half in recent years with more than 2,000 requests now regularly made each year.

“We are working with the Information Commissioner to ensure we continue to provide information in as timely a way as possible, and now proactively publish FOI responses on the Scottish Government website.”