Debate in the Scottish Parliament
20 June 2018
Motion debated :
That the Parliament notes the concerns raised on Scottish Government transparency in the intervention report from the Scottish Information Commissioner; notes the key findings that the Scottish Government’s FoI policies and procedures are not clear enough regarding the role of special advisers in responding to FoI requests; believes that the Scottish Government takes longer to respond to journalists’ FoI requests than other requests; considers that a number of areas have been highlighted for action, including clearance procedures, quality assurance of FoI responses, training, case handling and case records management, monitoring FoI requests and review procedures, and calls for an independent review of both FoI handling and the recording of information from meetings.
The text of Rhoda’s speech :
The intervention report from the Scottish Information Commissioner exposes the utter contempt in which this Scottish National Party Government holds the freedom of information law.
In publishing that damning report, the Scottish Information Commissioner has done the principle of openness and transparency a great service, and I truly hope that the report is a wake-up call for the Scottish Government.
FOI legislation was enacted to make Government more transparent and to improve scrutiny, yet this Government has done the opposite.
It refuses to be held to account and it refuses to be scrutinised. In the Scottish Parliament, questions—particularly written questions—get poor and evasive answers, so members are forced to use the FOI legislation to get the answers that they should have been provided with in the Parliament.
However, the Scottish Government seeks to block that as well.
It singles out journalists and MSPs and their researchers for special treatment.
FOI requests are subject to greater scrutiny and sign-off and are less likely to get answers, and those answers that are provided take longer to receive.
The report states:
“by creating and applying a process based on requester type rather than the nature of the request, not only is the spirit of FOI legislation offended, but trust between those groups mentioned in the policy and the Scottish Government may also be damaged.”
This is not just important to those of us in the political bubble.
It is important to hold the Government to account and to understand how and why decisions are made and who influences why they are made.
Meetings that Government ministers have taken part in are matters of public interest and national importance.
We are calling, therefore, for an independent review of how the Government handles FOI requests and its overall record keeping, which is another area in which it has fallen short.
For example, we have a transport minister meeting the chief executives of both Stagecoach and FirstGroup with no minutes being taken, nor any agenda being prepared.
We have a First Minister, alongside her finance secretary, her education secretary and her economy secretary, inviting a host of business figures to dinner at Bute house, including SNP donor Brian Souter, again with no minutes or agenda.
It is outrageous that Scottish Government ministers think that they can have such covert meetings and ride roughshod over FOI legislation and indeed the law.
That means that even the Scottish Information Commissioner is unable to track the Government’s behaviour and decision-making process.
The report states:
“Where data was absent or unclear, it was excluded from our analysis.”
Therefore, the report is based only on the findings from the Government’s better record keeping.
We can only guess what is being covered up by its worst.
Whether by intent or negligence, poor record keeping in the very process that was enshrined in law to make Government more transparent makes it less so, and that is extremely disappointing.
The Scottish Information Commissioner’s report states that he cannot be clear what role special advisers have with regard to FOI.
Their involvement varies between departments, and he states that there is little guidance on their role and whether it impacts on responses that are given.
We all know that special advisers have a more political role in helping Government, but that should not allow them to evade the law or indeed the spirit of the FOI legislation.
If information that is requested is available and is not subject to any legal exclusion, it must be provided.
That is the letter and the spirit of the FOI legislation, and it must be adhered to.
It is simply wrong that a Government that should be leading the way and providing a good example has behaved in the way that it has, and it must stop now.
Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):
I speak as someone who ceased to be a minister six years ago and who, for three years after being a minister, continued to be asked for confirmation about FOI responses. Who in Government should be the person who contacts people such as me, who are no longer in Government, in order to ensure that the FOI responses that are being made are being checked?
It is surely for the minister to ensure that his answer to an FOI request is right because, ultimately, the Government is responsible.
If a minister needs to depend on a special adviser to help them to hide information, that is not good for governance or transparency.
If the answer to a request will disclose information that embarrasses the Government, it is the Government’s job to answer that request and to put right the wrong that has been uncovered—not to seek to hide it, which would be not only underhand and evasive but illegal. If poor record keeping is being used to disguise such an approach, that is even worse.
The question also arises whether the additional level of scrutiny delays answers to journalists, MSPs and MSPs’ staff or whether there is a culture of deliberately delaying the provision of information to such people to kill a story or a line of inquiry.
The report talks about the lack of training for staff who deal with FOI requests.
There appears to be no formal training, which is surely untenable.
Those staff need to be trained in meeting their legal obligation to ensure transparency, and surely they must also be trained in how to provide the information in an accessible way.
It is unbelievable that more than 1,000 people in the Government are involved in FOI work but have no formal training.
We strongly suggest that that should be put right as soon as possible.
All those problems stack up to create a pretty damning report.
There is little that is good in the report—the only thing that stands out is that an improvement has taken place, but it happened only after the Information Commissioner stepped in, and it does not go far enough.
If that is what improvement looks like, we can only imagine how bad the situation was previously.
The catalogue of errors reflects poorly on the Government.
We expected the report to describe some failings in the system, but it shows failing after failing.
Those failings might not always have occurred with intent, but carelessness is hardly an excuse when it prevents proper governmental scrutiny by Opposition parties, back benchers and the press.
The Government’s amendment would remove from our motion the concerns that are expressed in the report.
That is disappointing, because it shows a lack of understanding of the findings’ seriousness.
The Government talks of consulting on extending FOI legislation to companies that provide services on the public sector’s behalf.
We support that extension, but the Government must go further than consulting—it must commit to legislating on the consultation’s outcome.
It also has to put its house in order, so that we have confidence in the system and in its extension to non-governmental service providers.
We need a new approach to FOI—one that we can be confident about; one that can withstand independent scrutiny; and, most important, one that adheres to the letter and the spirit of the law.