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BBC Scotland's political editor Brian Taylor
"It will be more radical than anything being proposed at Westminster"
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Thursday, 25 November, 1999, 19:43 GMT
Bill to end 'culture of secrecy'
Newspapers The bill will change people's right to know information

Justice Minister Jim Wallace promises Scotland's new freedom of information bill will provide more open government and bring to an end the "culture of secrecy" in official circles.

The Liberal Democrat politician told MSPs on Thursday that the proposal was a great demonstration of "devolution at work" and would "tip the scales decisively in favour of openness".

Jim Wallace Jim Wallace: "Scottish bill for Scotland"
All Scottish public bodies, including the police and the NHS, will be affected by the new legislation.

Central to the bill will be the appointment of an information commissioner who will have the power to recommend or order disclosure of information.

Mr Wallace said: "Let me be clear. The information commissioner will have the power to order the disclosure of information. He or she will also be empowered to adjust charges, resolve disputes by mediation and have a right of access to documents.

"There will be a continued commitment to a culture of greater openness in the public sector, in which the commissioner will play a key role."

The bill will also enshrine a "public interest test" which would require the release of information if the public interest outweighed any substantial prejudice.

Key points
A statutory right of access to information
Public bodies, schools, the NHS, the police and government agencies will be covered
Public bodies have to prove that withholding information would result in prejudice
Public interest information will be released regardless of prejudice
An independent Scottish information commissioner will be appointed

The legislation is viewed as one of the most important to come before the parliament and is said to offer Scots more rights than their English and Welsh neighbours.

The document is unanimously backed by the Scottish cabinet and covers all devolved matters.

That means powers reserved to Westminster - like social security - will fall under the separate legislation presented to Westminster recently by the Home Secretary Jack Straw.

But critics are worried about conflicts arising between London and Edinburgh where under the terms of the Scottish act, information should be available, but because of the English act it remains confidential.

Mr Wallace said: "These are distinctive Scottish proposals, but where it has made sense we have had regard to the proposed UK scheme.

"I have discussed our approach with the Home Secretary, who has been constructive throughout.

Confidential Public bodies will be affected
"That the two administrations are taking different approaches to this important subject demonstrates devolution at work.

"In June I said that effective freedom of information and openness is about culture as much as it is about legislation.

"The consultation document therefore devotes a chapter to the ways in which we would propose fostering and maintaining an appropriate culture of openness throughout Scottish public authorities. This is an important aspect of the proposals.

"The package of proposals will deliver for Scotland a real difference to the way in which information is made available to the people, increased openness in the working of government and better scrutiny of government - in short, better government."

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See also:
21 Nov 99 |  Scotland
'An information bill with teeth'
19 Nov 99 |  Scotland
Demands for far-reaching information bill
23 Jun 99 |  UK Politics
Freedom of Information plans unveiled
22 Jun 99 |  UK Politics
Straw defends information bill

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