FOIMan discusses controversy in Scotland around allowing independent schools longer to answer FOI requests.
Campaigners south of the border must look to Scotland with envious eyes. Whilst the UK Campaign for FOI has to spend most of its time fighting for the status quo in the face of repeated attempts to water the UK Act down, the Scottish Government has recently extended FOI to certain private bodies providing public services – something many have called for at UK level but never achieved. Scottish campaigners and media aren’t happy though – they’re still pushing those boundaries.
The latest cause celebre is the Scottish Government’s planned regulations to allow independent special schools and grant-maintained schools covered by the Act to have more time to answer requests. Schools, of course, are pretty unique in that they tend to close during holiday periods. At UK level, regulations were made as far back as 2005 to reflect this. They have 20 school days or 60 working days (whichever is sooner) to answer requests (and yes, I know – they have to answer requests “promptly” and that these deadlines are backstops).
In Scotland it’s different for administrative and historical reasons. Public sector schools’ FOI requests are the responsibility of their local council. For this reason, the allowances made for schools across the rest of the UK have never been made in Scotland.
Now things are different though. The new independent sector schools that have been added to the Act’s coverage will have to answer requests themselves. Following consultation, the Scottish Government wants to address their concerns by making regulations more or less identical to the ones covering schools in the rest of the UK but just for independent special schools and grant-maintained schools that have been recently added.
This is being heavily criticised by the media in Scotland who are portraying it as dangerous backsliding on FOI principles. They argue that if this change is made for one part of the public sector, then it won’t be long before others call for the same exceptions.
Whether you share the Scottish media’s concerns or not will depend on your point of view. For the record, I haven’t seen much evidence that allowing all schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland longer to answer requests has led to other parts of the public sector begging for longer (they may take longer in practice but that’s another issue). But it’s got to be a good thing that campaigners in Scotland are able to marshal such support for FOI even whilst other issues dominate the headlines.