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.
As a Highlands and Islands member, I strongly support any and every political initiative to support, grow and develop our island communities.
I welcome today’s debate and thank the minister, my MSP colleagues and the councils, particularly those of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, for their tireless work on this endeavour.
I also welcome representatives of those councils to the public gallery.
There is nothing new in the argument at home and abroad about strengthening our island communities.
The minister will expect me to mention the 2016 Japanese act on remote islands and, if we go back in time, we have the Montgomery committee that reported in April 1984 and recommended consolidating, developing and extending the powers of island councils.
Other members have mentioned the key element of the Treaty of the European Union—the principle of subsidiarity—which means taking decisions in a localised and decentralised way.
The European Union has always had strong and consistent policies to give special attention to the specific characteristics of territories with serious and permanent handicaps, including islands.
That is why the development of structural funds was so important for our island communities.
The handicaps are well known to our islanders: limited and costly modes of transport; restricted and declining economic activity; and the fragility of markets and loss of young people.
However, some things have not changed.
A conference that was organised by Shetland Islands Council and the Committee of the Regions looked at the 2011 Euroislands study.
That analysed island communities across the EU, and many issues were debated and discussed, looking at common characteristics across the 28 nations.
It found that, by and large, islands have below-average connectivity, their gross domestic product is below the European average, economic convergence is slower, the number of job and career opportunities is low, and services there are of variable quality and high cost.
However, there has to be a counterweight to that, and the 2012 geographic specificities and development potentials in Europe survey concluded that islands have close-knit communities, high-value natural capital and the potential for renewable energies.
It also noted that islands experienced higher vulnerability to climate change through heightening sea levels and an increased likelihood of storms.
All of that comes together to mean that policies and laws affect island communities in a way that they do not affect anywhere else.
Although islands have some similarities with rural regions in general, the specificity and peripherality of islands mark them as different.
Because of that, it is important that we are not “territorially blind”, to use the words of the EU’s global Europe 2050 vision.
Much of the bill is to be celebrated.
It has good intentions, it is very high level, and it leaves much of the detail to be set out in regulations.
However, it is hard to determine what the work will look like in practice.
As Western Isles Council has argued in a letter to me, the acid test will be strong and effective island proofing.
That will be the mark of success of the bill, as well as of the future of our island communities.
How and when will an island communities impact assessment be required?
Real devolution means additional powers to island communities.
Will that happen with the bill? New powers need new financial muscle.
Real devolution means resource-based control—transferring control of the sea bed from the Crown Estate to island authorities and perhaps onward to the community land and harbour trusts.
New powers also need strategic decision making in the planning, designing and commissioning of mainland-island ferry services, and the recognition of island status in the Scottish constitutional set-up.
I agree with what the member says, but does he recognise that the Islands (Scotland) Bill is part of a suite of measures, taking into account the Crown Estate measures and the community empowerment legislation that have been taken forward, as well as the national islands plan that will be developed as a result of the bill?
I intend to touch on that, and I agree with what the minister says.
Real devolution means public sector job relocation, as Jack McConnell did when he moved Scottish Natural Heritage’s headquarters from Edinburgh to Inverness.
How about moving the CalMac Ferries HQ to the Western Isles, the Scottish Crown Estate HQ to Orkney, or the Scottish Land Commission HQ to Shetland?
What about single public authority status for the health board, the local authority and Highlands and Islands Enterprise under one umbrella in each island authority?
Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP):
Will the member take an intervention?
I am in the final minute of my speech.
I celebrate the fact that the bill has been brought forward, acknowledging the different and varying needs of island communities.
A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a first step.
This bill is a first step, and it is to be welcomed.
I finish with the words of Sorley MacLean, who said: