The Finance Committee is asking the Scottish Government to remove the Royal exemption provision from its Freedom of Information (Scotland) Bill according to its Stage 1 report on the Bill published today.*
While the committee recommends the general principles of the Bill are agreed to, it recognises the substantial evidence provided by witnesses including the Scottish Information Commissioner and the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland, arguing against the inclusion of a provision that would make absolute those elements of the existing exemption relating to communication with The Queen, the Heir and second in line to the Throne. It has asked the Scottish Government to remove this provision from the Bill at Stage 2.
The committee also shares concerns expressed in evidence around the lack of extension of FoI coverage and has asked the Scottish Government to consider amendments to the FoI Act at the Bill’s Stage 2. The committee heard evidence about the right to access information being weaker now than in 2002 and of organisations being created which are not covered by the Act.
Committee Convener Kenneth Gibson MSP said:
“While the Finance Committee recognises the broad overall support for the Bill and its intentions, we have listened to the evidence and invite the Scottish Government to remove at Stage 2 the provision relating to a Royal exemption.
“Regarding the extension of FoI coverage, we are asking the Cabinet Secretary to detail how and when the Scottish Government will take forward its consideration of the extension of coverage. In light of the response, the committee will reconsider its position at Stage 2."
Section 1 of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill seeks to amend Section 2 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. At present, if applying the exemption for information relating to communications with Her Majesty, other members of the Royal Family, or with the Royal Household, the public interest in whether or not to release must also be considered. The “public interest test” is in practice a balancing act requiring public authority to weigh the arguments in favour of release of information against arguments in favour of withholding.
A limited number of exemptions are “absolute” meaning the public interest does not have to be considered. The amendment proposes to make absolute those elements of the exemption relating to communications with Her Majesty, the Heir and second in line to the Throne.
Section 5 of the 2002 Act provides powers to extend coverage of FoI and allows Scottish Ministers to bring forward a Scottish statutory instrument to designate “public authorities” e.g. persons providing under contract a service on the council’s behalf.
* Gavin Brown MSP dissented on this issue.