Victory for freedom of information

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By Cara Sulieman

SCOTTISH ministers have backed down in their bid to stop the country’s information commissioner from accessing their files.

Lawyers for the government were due to appear in court to challenge the powers of Kevin Dunion.

They wanted to stop him from accessing their files, which in an important part of his job.

But they abandoned the case at the last minute and Mr Dunion has dropped his request for the information.

The back down is seen as a victory for freedom of information campaigners who saw the challenge as an attack on the public’s right to see government files.

The row started when SNP ministers wanted the Court of Session to give a clarification of Mr Dunion’s powers.

They particularly wanted them to say whether or not he should have unlimited access to state files.

It came after Dunion’s office had issued the government with an “information notice” ordering it to release information.

Now that the court has dismissed the appeal, campaigners have labelled it a victory.

Heather Brooke, the campaigner who exposed MPs expenses, said “wiser heads had prevailed”.

She added: “It would have set a very dangerous precedent if they had gone through with it.

“It would also have looked incredibly bad, as if they were politicians of the old school, very shady and secretive.

“I don’t know how they could have argued an action like that was in the public interest.”

And Robert Brown, Liberal Democrat MP for Glasgow said the government had wasted money on the appeal.

He said: “The government has ultimately taken the right approach.

“But at a time of public spending pressures, it’s not at all satisfactory that they’ve been wasting our money on trying to prevent out FoI champion doing his job.”

Mr Dunion and his office consider appeals from people who are unhappy with public bodies withholding information.

To do this, his office looks at all the information and decides what can and can’t be made public.

The government’s appeal looked at his right to do this, even though it is an integral part of his job.

A spokesman for the Scottish Information Commissioner said: “In the lead-up to this week’s court hearing the ministers amended their grounds of appeal quite substantially, with the result that, following discussions with the ministers’ team, we were able to settle this case earlier in the week.

“As a result, the Court of Session dismissed the appeal at a hearing on Tuesday, and the full hearing did not proceed.

“The Commissioner is now progressing with the investigation of the case in question.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Information Commissioner agreed to withdraw the information notice he had served on Scottish ministers in respect of an application he is currently considering.

“Ministers will not now proceed with their challenge to the notice.

“The Scottish Government in committed to FoI and its underpinning principles of openness and transparent government.”

Since it came into effect in 2005, the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act has led to a number of revelations including MSP’s expenses, patient mortality figures for surgeons and even Alex Salmond’s private correspondence with Sean Connery.

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