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Friday, 28 September, 2001, 07:52 GMT 08:52 UK
Bid to end 'culture of secrecy'
Scottish Parliament committee
The bill would release data into the public domain
A bill to give people the legal right to access information held by public bodies has been published by the Scottish Executive.

Scottish Ministers said they wanted to end the "culture of secrecy" in public life and that the Freedom of Information Bill goes further than comparable English legislation at Westminster.

Campaigners for freedom of information legislation have generally welcomed the bill, but many have raised fears that it does not go far enough to make a significant difference.

The bill will create an independent Scottish Information Commissioner with powers to order disclosure of potentially sensitive material.

Justice Minister Jim Wallace has described the bill as one of his personal commitments.

Jim Wallace
Jim Wallace: Personal commitment
The Official Secrets Act is 90 years old and Mr Wallace has said a change in attitude is well overdue.

He will pilot the Freedom of Information Bill through the Scottish Parliament to place a duty on public bodies - the Scottish Executive, its agencies, local councils, the police and NHS Scotland among them - to open their files.

An information commissioner will be able to force reluctant bodies to comply, although there will be a narrow list of exemptions.

The exemptions will cover items like national security and campaigners are worried these may be drawn too widely.

There is also a concern that there is no compulsion on public bodies to keep records - so campaigners may find when they ask, there is no information to access.

Sensitive information

Campaigners also said public bodies may argue that it would cost too much to disclose certain information.

Mr Wallace, who has been campaigning for freedom of information since he became a member of parliament 18 years ago, insists the bill will ensure better scrutiny of the working of government and the public sector.

He said: "All freedom of information legislation must find a balance between providing a right of access to information while recognising the need to protect rightfully sensitive information. I believe that this bill achieves the right balance."

"This bill will ensure increased openness and better scrutiny of the working of government and the public sector.

"It will support better government and in doing so, lead to an increased public confidence in the decisions taken that affect our daily lives."


A Freedom of Information Bill merely defines what information the executive can withhold from the public. In reality it is a Restriction of Information Bill.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton MSP, Scots Tory justice spokesman

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton MSP, Scots Tory Justice Spokesman said: "The executive needs to answer one simple question - what information are they currently withholding that these proposals would bring into the public domain?

"And if they are withholding information why are they withholding it?

"A Freedom of Information Bill merely defines what information the executive can withhold from the public. In reality it is a Restriction of Information Bill.

"The Executive really does have to clarify exactly what it is, and why, in their view, there is a need for it."

Key elements of the bill include:

  • A general legal right of access to information.

  • Coverage of Scottish public authorities, including local authorities, schools, NHS Scotland and the police, as well as Scottish Executive departments and agencies.

  • A "harm test" of "substantial prejudice" to withhold information.

  • A requirement on public authorities to consider the public interest in disclosing information.

  • A narrowly drawn set of exemptions to protect sensitive information

  • An independent Scottish Information Commissioner to promote and enforce the legislation, with powers to order disclosure of information.

    It is hoped the bill will receive Royal Assent by Spring 2002.

  • See also:

    03 Jan 01 | Scotland
    Call for stronger freedom law
    26 Nov 99 | Scotland
    Bill to end 'culture of secrecy'
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