Fewer freedom of information requests were made to public authorities during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Scottish Information Commissioner's Annual Report and Accounts for the year 2020-21, now published.
The report reveals that 69,519 FOI requests were made to Scottish public bodies during the year, down from 81,061 in 2019-20 and 83,963 in 2018-19. Of the requests made, 11.9% were for environmental information.
Full or partial disclosure of information requested was made in 73% of cases, down from 76% in 2019-20. The Commissioner’s team responded to 860 enquiries, the majority of which were seeking advice on making and responding to information requests and requests for review, and received 486 appeals (down from 494 in 2019-20 and 560 in 2018-19), with nearly a quarter of valid appeals (23%) relating to an authority’s failure to respond.
In "a very challenging year", 61% of cases were closed within four months, the average time taken being 4.37 months, and 65% of the Commissioner’s decisions found wholly or partially in favour of the requester.
The Commissioner also made 260 interventions regarding authority practice improvements (compared to 251 in 2019-20 and 252 in 2018-19).
Commenting as the report was published, the Commissioner, Daren Fitzhenry said: "The right of access to information has never been more relevant: freedom of information is an essential part of the response to the pandemic, and must remain a priority.
"Though fewer requests for information were made to public authorities across the past year (particularly during the initial period of COVID-19 restrictions), I am heartened to see that almost three quarters still resulted in full or partial disclosure of information."
He added: "The temporary closure of our office premises and related disruption, combined with high numbers of appeal cases from 2019-20 and in the second half of 2020-21, have inevitably had some impact on our performance. However, the efforts of the team and our more agile ways of working should stand us in good stead to improve further across the coming year.
"Looking ahead, we will continue to assess the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on FOI, learning lessons and helping authorities to improve. We also look forward to the Scottish Government taking forward the recommendations of the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit and Post-Legislative Scrutiny Committee report on the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act. We are ready to provide our input in helping make changes to improve and develop Scotland’s FOI system, keeping it up to date and relevant in the post-pandemic world."