Cancer of secrecy at heart of Holyrood is symptom of SNP’s autocratic mindset
By Graham Grant
IN a rare moment of candour, Tony Blair once said he regretted the introduction of freedom of information laws, as they were ‘not practical for government’.
This was euphemism of the highest order: Mr Blair simply hadn’t realised the full implications of greater openness, and consequently the era of unremitting spin began.
And we’re fooling ourselves in Scotland if we believe the SNP did not learn from those dark arts: the party’s most notable skill was in slick PR, the main reason it won power in 2007.
Our public institutions now operate behind a veil of obfuscation and indeed downright contempt for the taxpayers financing well-remunerated and often inaptly named communications experts.
So we can’t be entirely surprised that Nicola Sturgeon’s growing band of special advisers (SPADS) is continuing to vet freedom of information (FOI) responses.
An internal Scottish Government email from July 10 reveals that SPADs – political appointees – are still hard at work behind the scenes.
‘Dear Minister’, it begins, ‘Please see the draft FOI response below… The response has been reviewed by SPADs and they suggested further redactions which we have made to the documents.’
Unthinkable, of course, that the response could be passed to the public with no revision – except that, inconveniently, the FOI laws make it quite clear that information shouldn’t be withheld simply on the grounds that people might misinterpret it.
Back in June, a damning report by Scotland’s information watchdog said SPADS (who collectively earn nearly £1million a year) and ministers had regularly tried to influence the refusal or delay of material they do not want in the public domain.
Parliamentary Business Minister Joe Fitzpatrick insisted at the time that ‘working with the [Information] Commissioner [who adjudicates on FOI disputes], we will produce an action plan to take forward these recommendations’.
On June 22, the Mail launched our Secret Scotland campaign, aimed at ending that culture of secrecy; only a few weeks later, it seems, it was business as usual for the Scottish Government.
The Information Commissioner also criticised ministers and their officials for treating journalists, politicians and political researchers differently from members of the public.
I was recently told (twice) by the Scottish Police Authority that a copy of an internal report on alleged financial wrongdoing at the quango had not been issued five weeks before to a non-journalist – despite clear evidence that it had been.
Once this was revealed as a falsehood, we were given the auditor’s findings, and a possible reason for the quango’s reticence became strikingly clear – as the report vindicated a whistleblower’s allegations of extravagant ‘golden hello’ payments (the official explanation was staff sickness and human error…)
The Mail recently fought and ultimately won a five-month FOI dispute with Police Scotland to obtain statistics on ‘unresolved homicides’.
We were told initially that it would be too ‘costly’ to retrieve the data, when in fact it had already been collated. It was released to us on appeal.
When this apparent aversion to honest dealing is so deeply soaked into the inner workings of a political machine, lasting change may take a while to effect.
But the early signs are that increased public scrutiny has failed to end the dominion of the shadowy spinners the First Minister has assembled around her, and those on the payrolls of myriad quangos.
The kind of control freakery that was so much a part of Blairite politics is also one of the prime drivers of the Nationalist mindset, which has produced an administration bereft of intellectual dynamism, and replete with ineffectual sycophants.
Devolved government under the SNP has been a virtual autocracy from the beginning, and now one woman is calling the shots (many of them entirely the wrong shots, such as the abortive and electorally damaging demand for indyref2.)
A renewed statement of intent on Scottish independence is due in October – when it is widely expected that Miss Sturgeon will kick the idea of a new poll into the long grass.
But in the meantime, she and her ministers have had to get on with the day job, such as blaming Brexit for, well, just about everything (most recently the under-performing NHS).
One supposedly flagship policy after another has foundered, including Named Person – a plan that amounts to mass state surveillance of every child under the age of 18, which was ruled largely unlawful by the Supreme Court in London.
In time-honoured fashion, the Scottish Government initially provided only minimal information about the crisis meetings that resulted from this humiliating judgment, and it’s now obvious why there was such reluctance to publish more.
Papers that were only released after an FOI appeal show officials are considering a Plan B, formulating ‘contingency’ plans to introduce a watered-down version of the scheme, bypassing the Scottish parliament and the Supreme Court, if necessary.
The Statutory Guidance Reference Group, comprising government, health and council officials, faced the challenge of trying to implement the law despite the (rather insurmountable) concern that data-sharing would breach children’s privacy rights.
Members of this Soviet-sounding ‘taskforce’ asked: ‘What if the legislation is not passed? Do we need to look at guidance on current laws DP (data protection) & HR (human rights)?’
The Plan B looks a lot like a brazen attempt to railroad Named Person into existence, despite an unrelenting clamour of protest, and mounting evidence that it is destined for costly failure.
Whatever emerges from these panicked discussions, we can be relatively sure it will be a sorry imitation of the original policy, but still with great potential to prove a bureaucratic headache for childcare professionals – and to pave the way for yet more intrusion into family life.
While the minister technically in charge of this mess is John Swinney, there is no doubt he is attempting to hold it together on behalf of his boss.
She rightly fears that putting Named Person out of its misery would be damaging for a government that has already seen one of its ‘big ticket’ laws – the ban on sectarian chanting at football matches – rescinded.
A massive parental backlash against standardised testing ( another cobbled-together policy implemented with insufficient planning and consultation), and a row over dumbing down in exams, mean Mr Swinney already has a bulging in-tray.
Miss Sturgeon – who pushed for the introduction of testing – has staked her personal reputation on turning around the tanker of educational failure in Scotland.
But her initial assumption that a veteran operator such as her trusted consigliere Mr Swinney was a safe pair of hands now seems a misjudgment.
It’s all too understandable that a government mired in failure, and confronting the reality that without its central constitutional mission it has little idea of how to reform failing public services, should seek to keep us all in the dark for as long as it can.
Perhaps, rather than drawing up plans for indyref2 – or excuses for its inevitable delay – the First Minister should enlist the help of her spin doctors to devise another blueprint – her own exit strategy.