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Justice Minister Jim Wallace
"We need to break down Scotland's culture of secrecy"
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BBC Scotland David Allison
"UK citizens could end up with differing standards of freedom on information"
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Wednesday, 30 August, 2000, 08:44 GMT 09:44 UK
Scotland looks to Irish 'freedom' system
Top secret graphic
Scotland is being promised more openness
The Scottish Executive is holding talks with the Irish Government, as it considers how to open up more of its business to public scrutiny.

Ireland has a strong commitment to freedom of information and Scotland's Justice Minister Jim Wallace is preparing similar plans.

The "openness" promise is a key Liberal Democrat pledge, which Mr Wallace sees as one of his party's major contributions to the coalition with Labour in Scotland.

How indeed generally do you try to foster a culture of openness rather than a culture of secrecy?

Jim Wallace
The Scottish plans, unveiled last November in a freedom of information consultation document, broadly match the existing Irish system.

All information is presumed to be open unless the authorities successfully argue for secrecy on grounds which include national security.

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.

It presumes that information held by the executive and public bodies, like health boards, should be freely available except where, for example, national security is threatened.

Jim Wallace
Jim Wallace: "Proper balance"
It also outlines proposals for a separate Scottish commissioner to rule on disputes.

Irish government sources say their freedom of information measures have dented the culture of secrecy which previously pervaded officialdom.

Mr Wallace will hold talks with the Irish Government and with the commissioner who represents the public interest.

Speaking from Dublin, the minister told the BBC's Good Morning Scotland: "If the executive or another public body says no, you're not getting a look at this, everyone will have the right to appeal to the commissioner.

"He or she can overrule the executive and then, it would be in very rare circumstances, it would only be by collective decision of the cabinet that the commissioner could be overruled and you can take it that would be a pretty big political event.

"I think that sort of safeguard should ensure that proper balance between confidentiality and openness with the scales tilted quite decisively in favour of openness."

Dail building
The Irish Government is said to be more open
Mr Wallace said he wanted to share Ireland's experience of freedom of information legislation built up over several years.

"Where have they identified the strengths, where perhaps they've been taken by surprise, and how indeed generally do you try to foster a culture of openness rather than a culture of secrecy?"

He is meeting the governmentt minister responsible for freedom of information and the information commissioner.

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 English legislation it remains confidential.

They have also attacked the timetable for the proposals to become law. This is not expected to happen until next year.

The meetings are building on government co-operation between Edinburgh and Dublin since devolution. Scottish ministers created the Drug Enforcement Agency which was based on the Irish model.

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See also:

06 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Bill sparks five Labour revolts
26 Nov 99 | Scotland
Bill to end 'culture of secrecy'
21 Nov 99 | Scotland
'An information bill with teeth'
23 Jun 99 | UK Politics
Freedom of Information plans unveiled
22 Jun 99 | UK Politics
Straw defends information bill
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