More welcome new laws on disclosure

24th December 2004 at 00:00
Colleges and universities are more relaxed about the effects of new freedom of information legislation than previously. But local government, including education authorities, is among the least prepared of public services to comply with the laws which come into force on January 1.

Results of a survey for the Scottish Information Commissioner, published on Monday, show that of 34 further education colleges and nine higher education institutions, only 11 per cent suggested the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act would have a negative impact on their work; this contrasts with 50 per cent who believed this would be so in earlier research at the turn of the year.

All 10,000 public bodies affected by the legislation have been issuing publication schemes this year, citing the information they "proactively" intend to publish. The survey shows colleges and universities are more likely than others to be able to monitor requests from this scheme - 77 per cent against 57 per cent of other organisations.

The FE and HE sectors, however, are least likely to have policies on the retention and disposal of records, and the commissioner's office notes:

"This is a potential area for concern as such a policy is a key component of an effective records management policy."

Local authorities, however, are least likely to have monitoring arrangements for their publication schemes, and most lack confidence about access to records held on email or microfiche.

From New Year's Day, public bodies in Scotland will have the information they hold open to public exposure on a wide range of their activities. The presumption is that they must publish - or be damned by Kevin Dunion, the commissioner, whose decisions can be overturned only by the First Minister.

Others in the education world affected include schools, local authority education departments, the Executive's education and lifelong learning ministries, and bodies such as the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the General Teaching Council for Scotland.

Private schools are not covered.

Among areas which the public should be able to access are the criteria for marking essays and exams, the number of bullying cases in a specific school or local authority, statistics on discipline in schools and details of teachers struck from the GTC register.

Employees will also be able to ask for information on how decisions about salaries, performance and promotion are made - and, like other areas, appeal to the commissioner if they are denied it.

The far-reaching nature of the commissioner's powers is further reflected in the public's right to discover what might previously have been classified as "commercially confidential", such as the details of contracts with providers of contracted-out services such as school dining facilities.

Mr Dunion will not, however, be under an obligation to rule in favour of requests to provide information in a specific form, such as an exam "league table".

He has already noted (TESS last week) that there is an exemption for information already "reasonably obtainable". The commissioner's view is that the information on school performance, now published on an individual school basis via Schools Online rather than centrally, "is information that can be described as such".

"Although the information is not organised in the form of 'league tables," Mr Dunion's office states, "it is available for anyone who wishes to make this kind of comparison to do so. Therefore he does not believe that the Executive has failed to comply with the terms or spirit of the Act by publishing this information in the form it does."

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