The Scottish Government has breached freedom of information law by delaying the release of information on harbour porpoises, according to an investigation by the Scottish Information Commissioner.
The commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, has criticised officials for being “unnecessarily pedantic” and for taking an “overly narrow interpretation” when rejecting a request for information on proposed porpoise conservation areas.
In a decision to be published next week, Agnew has ruled that the government breached two environmental information regulations. It wrongly said that it did not hold the information requested, and failed to provide “appropriate advice and assistance.”
The original request by a Ferret journalist, Rob Edwards, was for correspondence relating to a “proposed” Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for harbour porpoises in the Moray Firth. But it was rejected on the grounds that there was no “proposed” SAC in a strictly defined legal sense.
Even when Edwards requested a review pointing out that he meant “proposed” in the plain English sense of something that had been put forward for consideration, officials persisted in refusing his request. The information was, however, released when Edwards made a second request for correspondence “about any draft sites under consideration”, avoiding the use of the word “proposed”.
As The Ferret has previously reported, the released correspondence revealed that renewable energy companies scuppered plans to protect porpoises in the Moray Firth. They lobbied ministers behind the scenes, warning that the planned SAC could kill their plans for large offshore wind farms.
“In interpreting information requests, the Commissioner believes that the words used in the request should generally be given their plain, ordinary meaning,” said Agnew’s report.
“The Commissioner considers that the Ministers took an overly narrow interpretation of Mr Edwards’ original request for information, and were unreasonable to persist in this interpretation…The Commissioner considers that the Ministers’ review outcome was unnecessarily pedantic.”
A full copy of Agnew’s report is available here.