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FREEDOM OF INFORMATION - NEW RULES PROPOSED FOR PUBLIC AUTHORITIES

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Deputy first minister Jim Wallace yesterday announced proposals for the first ever legally enforceable right of acc...
Deputy first minister Jim Wallace yesterday announced proposals for the first ever legally enforceable right of access to information held by Scottish public authorities, backed up by a fully independent commissioner, appointed by parliament, with the legal authority to require disclosure.
The Scottish executive's draft Freedom of Information Bill was published yesterday for consultation and sets out:
A legal right of access for all to information held by a broad range Scottish public authorities including the Scottish executive and its agencies, local authorities, the NHS in Scotland, educational institutions, and the police.
A fully independent Scottish information commissioner with strong powers to promote and enforce the legislation.
The commissioner would be appointed by the queen, on the Scottish parliament's recommendation, independent of the Scottish executive.
The commissioner would monitor the overall operation of the legislation ensuring that as much information as possible is available to the public. Where he or she considers that information should be disclosed there would be legal power to order disclosure.
A limited set of exemptions, providing proper safeguards against the disclosure of sensitive information. In most cases, authorities seeking to withhold information would need to show that there would be 'substantial prejudice' if the information was released, and be required to consider the public interest in disclosure.
Mr Wallace said: 'Today we are setting out a right of access to public information, which promises to transform the culture of Scottish public life. This will be a right exercisable by anyone. A right to know, that does not rely on establishing a need to know.
'I believe we must have a robust Freedom of Information regime. I believe that with these proposals we will deliver that, with an independent and powerful Commissioner, a stringent harm test of 'substantial prejudice' and the consideration of the public interest.
'This is a Bill tailored for Scotland and one which is strongly tipped in favour of openness and accountability. At the same time, and in common with other FOI regimes including those in New Zealand and Ireland, we have recognised the responsibility of public authorities to guard against the disclosure of particularly sensitive information with a limited number of narrowly defined exemptions. That is the right package for Scotland.'
Mr Wallace reiterated what he said at the time of the earlier consultation, An Open Scotland: 'Effective openness leads to better scrutiny. Better scrutiny leads to better government and better government leads to an increased confidence on the part of the public in decisions taken which affect their lives.
'I believe this Bill will help in this regard. But it won't work on it's own. We need to change the mind-set of Scotland's public authorities from that of a culture of secrecy to a culture of openness. It will be a major task, but we have taken the first steps by establishing an interdepartmental working group on Freedom of Information.
'We will continue to develop our proposals for implementation and would welcome suggestions about this. I am determined to bring about a fundamental change in the mind-set of public servants so that being open and informing the public wherever possible becomes their natural starting point.'
BACKGROUND
1. Freedom of Information - Consultation on Draft Legislation, is published today. The consultation period will run until 25 May 2001. Public copies are available from the Executive website or from Sarah Corcoran 0131 244 2683.
2. The introduction of Freedom of Information legislation is an important executive commitment, set out in both the Partnership Agreement and Working together for Scotland - A Programme for Government.
3. The executive holds over 12 miles of files in central storage (800,000 files).
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