By Katy Clark, MSP for the West Scotland Region (Labour).

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THE Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act became law 20 years ago and provided the public with access to information held by public authorities, obliging bodies to publish certain information and enabling members of the public to request it.

It was one of Scottish Labour’s achievements in coalition government and the principles which underpin it remain vital to this day.

In any democratic society, people should have the right to full disclosure about how they’re governed and how their services are delivered.

Of course, how we are governed does change over time. Institutions naturally evolve, as does the culture of government and the civil service depending on the challenges of the day.

What’s more insidious, however, is the way public bodies find ways to evade accountability and transparency.

Last year’s figures show 14 per cent of Freedom of Information (FOI) responses by Scottish bodies were issued after the 20-day statutory deadline.

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Lateness isn’t the only issue. In May, Daren Fitzhenry, Scotland’s Information Commissioner, reported there were significant failures in record keeping and complying with procedures, as well as “systemic concerns” when it comes to monitoring requests.

The issue isn’t just incompetence it seems but an outright failure to apply the existing law and even act within the spirit of the law.

It’s a key reason I’m launching a member’s bill to reform FOI and address some of the glaring and ongoing issues we face.

The fact is the two decades old legislation on FOI we currently have must be overhauled if we want to close existing legal loopholes and ensure legal rights and duties are enforced.

Most notably, the legislation needs to keep pace with how our public services are delivered.

In many sectors, taxpayer funded services are now delivered by private and third sector organisations, particularly health and social care.

It can’t be right that unaccountable and often opaquely owned firms receive public money to make critical decisions that affect so many of us with next to no scrutiny whatsoever.

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This has been particularly apparent during the Covid pandemic, with thousands tragically dying in care homes.

Grieving families have in many cases been unable to illicit key information because so many homes are in the private sector and entirely exempt from FOI.

In dozens of cases, these care firms are owned offshore in tax havens and profiteering on a rampant scale.

Extending FOI coverage to these companies should be a no brainer.

And yet, despite Holyrood’s post-legislative scrutiny committee making this very recommendation two years ago, next to no progress has been made.

That’s why I’ve developed a member’s bill with the support and assistance of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland to amend and strengthen FOI.

My newly published consultation sets out key areas needing reform.

I’m looking forward to the participation of everyone who wants to embed a culture of openness, transparency, accountability and empowerment in Scotland.