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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 17:14 GMT
MSPs vote in favour of information bill
Scottish Parliament committee
The bill would release data into the public domain
MSPs have voted by 90 votes to 17 in favour of the Freedom of Information Bill, with the Conservatives the only party to oppose it.

The vote means that the Scottish Parliament will proceed immediately to appoint an Information Commissioner, who will be responsible for implementing the Bill.

The Bill would give everyone a legal right to all official information, subject only to a limited number of restrictions.

Justice Minister Jim Wallace had urged MSPs to back the Scottish Parliament's Freedom of Information Bill.

The Liberal Democrat opened a debate in the chamber on Thursday by saying the bill was of "significant importance".

He said the legislation was "necessary" to ensure ordinary members of the public were allowed to see documents which public bodies may wish to withhold.

"I believe information is the currency of an open, democratic society.

Jim Wallace
Jim Wallace: "More information in public domain"
"An effective freedom of information regime will result in more information in the public domain. It will encourage public authorities to make information available voluntarily.

"The reasons for decisions affecting all our lives will be readily available, stimulating and encouraging informed public debate," said Mr Wallace.

The minister also sought to clarify why the legislation was needed, responding to Conservative attacks that the current provisions on the release of information go far enough.

He said that unlike at present, the Bill would give people a legal right of access to confidential information.

'Culture of openness'

"If we had not brought forward this Bill, we would have to rely on what public authorities alone decide should be available.

"If they did not want particular information disclosed then it would not be," he added.

Mr Wallace also said that the legislation would encourage a culture of openness throughout the public sector in Scotland, including the NHS, the police, education organisations and quangos.

"If we are really committed to promoting a culture of openness and transparency across all of our public authorities, then we need to take significant steps to encourage it," he said.

Remain confidential

Mr Wallace also said that a powerful commissioner would be established to ensure that the freedom of information regime is closely followed and that no public authorities seek to withhold information unnecessarily.

He did admit the Bill would contain measures which would still allow certain pieces of information to remain confidential.

The executive needs to answer one simple question: What information are they currently withholding that these proposals would bring into the public domain?

James Douglas-Hamilton, Tory justice spokesman
But he stressed that the public would still be able to gain access to the vast majority of publicly-held documents.

He said: "There is no doubt that the right of access must be carefully balanced against the right to privacy and confidentiality and the need to ensure that sensitive information is properly protected.

"We have sought to find the right balance and I think that we have, tipping the scales decisively in favour of openness."

The Scottish National Party's justice spokeswoman, Roseanna Cunningham, said her party supported the Bill and added: "I think parliament should feel some considerable satisfaction that it is debating a piece of legislation that underlines the difference between this Parliament and Westminster.

'Not perfect'

"Our freedom of information regime will certainly be much more robust than the Westminster proposals and I've absolutely no doubt campaigners in England and Wales will continue to emulate what we have here in Scotland."

However, Ms Cunningham said the Bill was "not perfect", highlighting three areas where the nationalists wanted to see changes made. These were class exemptions, ministerial vetoes and the cost of accessing information.

Finally, she urged the minister to "force the pace" on implementation of the Bill.

Roseana Cunningham
Roseana Cunningham: "Considerable satisfaction"
She said: "If they are given three, four or five years, then it is in the nature of things that they will take three, four or five years - that is human nature."

Tory justice spokesman James Douglas-Hamilton accused the executive of using a "sledge-hammer to crack a nut", arguing information could be published on a voluntary basis.

He said his party had pursued such a policy when it published a code of practice on access to government information in 1994.

"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?" he said.

'Right to information'

He expressed concern over the power ministers would have to remove organisations from the scope of the Bill, which he said would create "an air of uncertainty and obfuscation".

But speaking on behalf of the parliament's Justice 1 Committee, which has welcomed the general principles of the Bill, Labour MSP Gordon Jackson criticised the stance taken by the Conservatives.

He said: "I cannot begin to see how in a democratic society we should be opposed to this legislation.

"It's all very well for Lord James to say he wants an open culture, but what we are doing is giving the citizen a right to information and what can possibly be wrong with that?"

However, Mr Jackson did say there were gaps in the Bill which needed to be tightened to ensure that public bodies were not able to avoid disclosing information.

"There are a number of ways in which, at least in theory, the purpose of the Bill could be thwarted and we need vigilance and proper guidelines to make sure that is not happening."

See also:

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