By Alastair Cameron, SIU Director.
Recently, there has been significant attention on the SNP’s culture of secrecy and covering up. There seems to be a remarkable lack of transparency over the contract for delayed and over-budget ferries. The SNP administration has apparently been trying to avoid sharing the legal advice which it received with regard to the legality of another referendum on leaving the UK, and has been forced by the Information Commissioner to share it.
The issues with the SNP’s deal with GFG Alliance, over the Lochaber smelter, which may have broken procurement law, have only come out due to a combination of leaking and dogged journalism. It looks as though the SNP have a lot to hide, and are keen to keep it hidden.
I have some experience of the blood-out-of-a-stone trials of trying to find out what the Scottish Government are doing with some of our taxpayers’ money. In September 2021, Nicola Sturgeon announced that Scottish Government civil servants would start work on a detailed prospectus for independence. A couple of months later, in November, I submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Scottish Government, asking for some details of the plan to produce this prospectus. After all, as the First Minister had announced something which must be needed well in advance of her avowed date of 2023 for another referendum, it seemed reasonable to think that the civil servants would have jumped to it and started planning.
Many requests, little information
Six months on, after two further FOI requests, two internal appeals, and a request to the Information Commissioner for a review (which is still in the process), I am pretty much none the wiser. The only information which I have elicited is that there are about a dozen civil servants working on the prospectus - fair play to journalist Chris Musson for picking up on it from the Scottish Government’s website.
The Scottish Government has refused to provide any details of the plan to produce the prospectus, or the budget allocated to it. This seems odd: if the prospectus is a key plank of the SNP’s policy, and is a necessary step on the way to holding another referendum by the end of 2023, why aren’t the SNP shouting about it from the rooftops? My supposition is that they are so habitually secretive that they can’t bring themselves to say anything outside a carefully managed ministerial briefing.
Most of the refusals to my detailed requests, which I have progressively made more specific, use exemptions to the FOI (Scotland) Act covering the formulation of policy and the provision of advice. There is supposed to be a public interest test for these exemptions, though, and surely there is a public interest in understanding the SNP’s plan here.
The public interest is not just for those of us who might seek to challenge their prospectus and the public money spent on it, but is perhaps even more important for committed supporters of independence, who must be keen to know how their favourite project is getting on, and whether Ms Sturgeon is repaying their faith in her.
Indeed, nationalists should be desperate to get their hands on all those answers on currency, EU membership process, border arrangements, defence and other aspects of the SNP’s latest case for breaking up the UK which are currently so clearly lacking. They must be keen to know when these answers will be available.
Maybe that’s the problem here: perhaps there is no real plan for the prospectus, let alone a plan for an actual referendum, and it’s all just a bit of a charade to keep nationalists supporting the SNP, and Ms Sturgeon in particular. Without more information from the SNP administration, who knows?
Each of my FOIs responses has been sent exactly on the deadline; not a day earlier. Perhaps the civil service are indeed so busy that they have burned the midnight oil to make sure that they met the date, but I find it remarkable that each of the three responses has been received exactly on the deadline. It’s as though it’s being deliberately strung out, I think.
When I brought response timing up in one of my appeals, the answer was that the FOI had been deemed sensitive, and the response needed ministerial involvement and was reviewed by special advisers. While I am flattered that the SNP appear to see my asking questions as some kind of challenge to the smooth running of their administration, which needs political consideration rather than just a straight answer from the civil service, one has to wonder why there is such sensitivity over this. If they are claiming that the will of the people is to have another referendum, why aren’t they promoting the production of the prospectus, rather than worrying about providing information about it?
Perhaps most concerning, on following up my request to the Information Commissioner for a review, I have found that there is a massive backlog of cases. Of course, if the Scottish Government and other public bodies were more forthcoming in the first place, there would be fewer appeals and a shorter queue…but perhaps that’s the point.
It is quite possible that the SNP ministers who review these sensitive requests, and must agree that the information will not be released, are well aware that most people will probably give up, and that the hardy few who persist will have to wait many months for a proper judgement. By the time the information is finally released, it may no longer be relevant, or will already have been released with the SNP’s own spin on it.
As well as the delay to my request, it is worth noting that the recent judgement that the SNP must release their referendum legal advice took at least a year to work through. Information delayed for so long may be almost useless. To adapt an old saying: information delayed is information denied.
Based on my own experience and on observing the work the media and others have to put in to try to get information from this SNP administration, I think that there is good evidence of the SNP Scottish Government routinely seeking to avoid releasing information, knowing full well that the appeal process is drawn out. I think this is deeply cynical, and counter to the ethos of open government. I await the result of my request to the Information Commissioner, and in the meanwhile I look forward to when we can have properly open government, not nationalist secrecy.
Copies of the relevant FOI and appeal responses are attached below. At the time of writing, May 2022, the appeal to the Information Commissioner is still under way.