Democracy campaigners have been angered by a Holyrood vote that has resulted in the weakening of Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation during the coronavirus crisis.
Emergency powers voted through parliament by MSPs included plans to extend the deadline for public bodies, including the Scottish Government, to respond to FOI requests.
The controversial plans were narrowly passed by MSPs despite a series of attempts by the SNP’s opponents to block them when they were debated during the Scottish Parliament debate on emergency powers.
The Scottish Government argued the changes were necessary to relieve pressure on public bodies during the crisis. But others argued that restricting FOI would reduce transparency of government at a time when an open approach is essential.
Under normal circumstances the Scottish Government, the NHS and local authorities have 20 days to reply to FOI requests. As a result of the passage of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill, this has been extended to 60 days.
Originally, ministers wanted to include a further extension of 40 days, but the Scottish Government compromised and signed up to a Green amendment removing the 40-day extension.
Scotland is now in the unenviable position of being the first country in the world to introduce new restrictions on freedom of information as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.”
But the extension of the deadline was attacked by Catherine Stihler, chief executive of the Open Knowledge Foundation which campaigns for openness across the world.
Ms Stihler said: “Scotland is now in the unenviable position of being the first country in the world to introduce new restrictions on freedom of information as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
“Openness is key to building public trust during a national emergency. Governments across the world must take emergency measures, and the public is ready and willing to accept this, but the best way to ensure continued public support is to be open with people.”
An amendment by Labour’s Neil Findlay calling for the deadlines to be kept while adopting a pragmatic and non-legislative approach to coronavirus pressures was rejected by the SNP and Greens.
Mr Findlay wanted Holyrood to follow the example of New Zealand where public bodies would not be penalised for missing the deadline if that was justified in the circumstances.
A series of other amendments that would have watered down the original proposal ended up in a tie obtaining 41 votes each. But they fell on the casting vote of the Presiding Officer Ken Mackintosh, who observed the convention of voting for no change.
Concerns that missing MSPs affected Holyrood vote
The closeness of the votes prompted concern that with MSPs absent through self-isolation the result did not reflect the true balance of the parliament.
Mr Findlay said: “We could have had a non-legislative solution similar to New Zealand. Instead we are the only western democracy to have used the coronavirus crisis to restrict the release of information.
The Scottish Green Party has just ensured restrictions to Freedom Of Information legislation passed – no other Western democracy has sought to restrict transparency and openness even at this crisis time.
— Neil Findlay MSP (@NeilFindlay_MSP) April 1, 2020
“Clearly there are serious issues for the parliament in the way it manages absences when people are self-isolating and are ill with the coronavirus. If there is no workable system of managing this, we are going to see people coming into parliament who are carrying the virus and who risk spreading it to staff members and MSPs and that’s not a situation we can tolerate. “
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “These temporary provisions, passed by the Scottish Parliament, do not suspend or restrict information rights but provide staff responding to information requests with much needed breathing space when their focus rightly has to be protecting and saving lives and delivering essential services to Scotland’s people in the current emergency.
“Ministers listened carefully to feedback and accepted the Scottish Information Commissioner’s suggestion to limit the time period for responding to requests to 60 days. It is important to note that a ‘sunset clause’ will restore the current FOISA timescales, once the Covid-19 emergency has passed.”