SBC needs to ‘catch up’ on Freedom of Information requests record

BORDERS council chiefs have defended the number of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests they have responded to, amid claims that the region’s local authority has a poor record when it comes to disclosing information to the public.

The comments from Scottish Borders Council came after claims that the public’s right to know across Scotland has been “unacceptably eroded”.

Last week information commissioner Rosemary Agnew warned that openness and transparency through FoI was now worse in the country’s public sector than when the Freedom of Information Act was passed a decade ago.

She blamed the growing number of quangos which are taking over the running of cultural and leisure services for many Scottish local authorities – and which are not covered by FoI – for the “erosion”, as well as the growing level of public services delivered through private finance initiatives which are also excluded.

Her remarks came as the Scottish Government mounts a legal challenge to a ruling to reveal if ministers have sought legal advice on an independent Scotland’s membership of the EU.

In press reports of the situation concerning FoI requests to local authorities, some claimed SBC had issued full disclosures in only 52 per cent of requests.

But SBC this week said its record over the past year had seen an improvement on the figures being touted in press reports, with 61 per cent of requests getting a full release in the past 12 months, another 16 per cent receiving a partial release, while only 18 per cent were refused, with one per cent being withdrawn/abandoned and four per cent which had a response status which was not stated.

A spokesman told TheSouthern: “Scottish Borders Council responds to as many FoI requests as we are able to in full.

“However, there are occasions when the request must be refused or the person requesting information should receive a partial reply.

“Examples of this include when the council does not hold the information, the information is commercially sensitive, or personal, or the costs may exceed the upper fees limit of £600.”

And he added: “We are one of the few councils in Scotland to publish FOI requests and our replies on our website, and we have done for the past two years. We want to be as open and as transparent as possible.”

However, Borders MSP John Lamont told us that Freedom of Information requests were a vital process that help make councils more accountable.

“With some local authorities releasing information for over 90 per cent of requests that they receive, it is clear that Scottish Borders Council has a lot of work to do to catch up,” he said.

“At a time when the SNP Government at Holyrood is spending thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money trying to stop the public from finding out information, there is an onus on both the Scottish Government and local authorities to be as transparent as possible in their dealings.

“They cannot hide information which the public has a right to know. It is about time that all levels of government started to give Freedom of Information requests the respect they deserve.”