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Reforms to Freedom of Information Act in case of communication between ministers and royalty is a worrying precedent says information commissioner

Date: (12 September 2012)    |    

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Scotland’s Information Commissioner has raised concerns against the plans of Scottish Government to reform freedom of information law which proposes to keep any communication between ministers and the royal family a secret.
Rosemary Agnew who is due to give evidence to Hoyrood’s Finance Committee has said that the proposed reforms were not only in direct conflict with the public interest but was also a “worrying precedent”.
The Scottish government in its plans to bring in changes to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Bill wants to give an absolute exemption to communications between the Scottish government and senior members of the Royal Family.
At the moment, information about the Royal Family can be published in Scotland if it passes a public interest test. Ministers would like to do away with the test thereby banning any release and bringing the situation in Scotland into line with legislation in other parts of the UK.
The amendment would exempt communications with the monarch, the heir to the throne or a member of the royal household acting on their behalf.
But in her response to the proposed changes, Ms Agnew said that the amendment would create a provision which requires absolute secrecy in relation to any aspect of communications with senior royals in all circumstances, regardless of how far removed the information is from the content of communications, or of the weight of the public interest in favour of release.
She said that in her view it would be unnecessarily restrict rights and create a worrying precedent with wide ranging absolute exemption which sets aside the public interest. The amendment was therefore in direct conflict with the public interest with the current protections being good enough she said.
A spokesman for the Scottish government said that the amendment on correspondence on (or behalf of) Her Majesty provides for consistency of approach across the UK and in doing so ensures an appropriate level of protection for Scotland's current and future heads of state by safeguarding the well established conventions of confidentiality.
Key elements of the Freedom of Information Amendment Scotland Bill include greater flexibility in reducing the lifespan of exemptions paving the way for more information to be made public earlier.
The bill also makes the legislation stronger by making more effective the ability to bring a prosecution where requested information has been deliberately altered, destroyed or concealed.