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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 August, 2004, 08:24 GMT 09:24 UK
Lighting up corridors of power
By Raymond Buchanan
BBC Radio Scotland's Sunday Live

A little more freedom is coming our way soon. Government is opening up and allowing some light into the corridors of power.

The new freedom is one of information.

Freedom of Information image
Public bodies will have new access responsibilities
From 1 January 2005, you, I and everyone else will have more rights. We can demand records and reports from a whole list of public bodies.

The NHS, police, universities and, of course, the Scottish Executive must hand over the information if they have it. This has to be done within 20 days.

After a request is made it is illegal to destroy records and those employees or authorities who do so can be fined up to 5,000 in a criminal court.

But the law does not come into force until next year and one lawyer is questioning the executive's amending of documents before the new act is in place.

Cameron Fyfe represents hundreds of child abuse victims who attended schools run by the De La Salle monks from the 1950s.

Deleting information

Some are suing their alleged abusers and believe that vital information for their cases is contained within official reports.

He told BBC Radio Scotland's Sunday Live programme: "The executive has hinted that they are deleting information from the files.

"At the moment we are seeking an order from the court to instruct the executive to produce this information. At the moment the executive are imprisoning information."

The executive admits that it is reviewing thousands of files, but insists that it is doing so to protect personal information.

The act is trying to make Britain a bit more like America where the presumption has been that information should be available unless there is a very good reason for it not to be available
Dr Brian McNair
Stirling University
It says that if anyone thinks they should have access to the files then they can apply for them - but only their details will be given.

If they want full disclosure of files which contain personal information of others they will have to apply for a court order.

Victims like Arthur McEwan want access to the files as soon as possible.

He was sent to St Ninian's approved school in Stirlingshire in the 1960s for stealing half a crown. There, he says, he endured years of physical abuse and he wants to know what the authorities at the time knew of it.

"There could be things written down about me that I could have completely forgotten about and this could apply to other children as well," he said.

New law

Mr McEwan has never seen any reports about the school, but said: "I don't trust any of them because I think all the things that happened to me in there, everyone knew what was going on.

"It was swept under the carpet and I think the executive are trying to do the same again. I don't know what they've got to hide."

So what will change under the new law?

Kevin Dunion
Kevin Dunion is Scotland's information commissioner
Dr Brian McNair from Stirling University's Media Research Unit believes that it goes some way towards changing British government's reputation for secrecy.

He said: "The Labour government has been trying to overcome the closed nature of British political culture.

"The act is trying to make Britain a bit more like America where the presumption has been that information should be available unless there is a very good reason for it not to be available."

And David Goldberg from the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland thinks the new law is a landmark piece of legislation.

"It is really a fundamental constitutional revolution," he told Sunday Live.

"There has never been the potential for a legally enforceable right to request information held by public authorities."

Public interest

But there are certain exemptions. For instance, if its judged that releasing a document will damage national security or breach confidential conversations between government ministers and royalty, then it does not have to be published.

There are other clauses which protect public organisations from releasing information which is commercially sensitive or details of the criteria used to judge candidates for public appointments or honours.

However, most of these will have to pass a public interest test, and if it is thought the public should know then the emphasis will be on releasing the information.

Monitoring the public body's performance is the job of Scottish Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion.

He has extensive powers under the new act to force organisations to disclose records. He can even apply for a court order to break down their doors and seize documents.

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