Donald Dewar’s cabinet minutes unveiled

Mr Dewar's first action was to welcome the members of the Scottish Executive to the first Scottish Cabinet. Picture: TSPL

Mr Dewar's first action was to welcome the members of the Scottish Executive to the first Scottish Cabinet. Picture: TSPL

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MINUTES from the first-ever Scottish Executive cabinet meeting have been made available for public viewing for the first time.

The records from the meeting held at inaugural Labour First Minister Donald Dewar’s Bute House residence in Edinburgh at 11am on May 20 1999 are among more than 13,000 files declassified today under the 15-year disclosure rule created by the SNP Government in 2009.

Mr Dewar’s first action was to welcome the members of the Scottish Executive to the first Scottish Cabinet, the minutes reveal.

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The first Cabinet discussed the drafting of the new Scottish Ministerial Code, which regulates ministers’ behaviour and responsibilities, the appointment of Special Advisers (Spads) who assist ministers with policy and communication, and relations with the UK Government’s Secretary of State for Scotland.

It also looked ahead to the pending controversy over the UK Food Standards Bill, which proposed regulating food safety with a single UK-wide agency, and plans for a new Freedom of Information Bill.

The First Minister also asked colleagues to respect the privacy of the Cabinet proceedings and papers.

“Ministers should avoid giving the media any details about the proceedings of the Cabinet and should refer enquirers to the official briefing in the event of their being ‘doorstepped’,” the minutes said.

However, the fledgling Executive was soon embroiled in a leak inquiry and a controversy which became known as “Lobbygate”.

A later Cabinet minute from October 1999 states: “The First Minister referred to the unauthorised disclosure to the Scotsman of a draft of his statement to the Procedures Committee on links between ministers and lobbyists.

“He stressed that leaks were an extremely serious matter which risked undermining the effective operation of the Executive.

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“The draft statement had had limited circulation and an investigation into its unauthorised disclosure was under way with external assistance.

“All ministers would be required to give details about how they had handled the paper and would be interviewed by an external investigator.”

The Lobbygate investigation probed allegations that PR firm Beattie Media had special access to ministers, notably the then finance minister Jack McConnell, who went on to become first minister and now sits in the House of Lords.

Mr McConnell was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing but the minutes reveal the strain he was under at the time.

“The First Minister referred to the parliamentary investigation to be undertaken by the Committee on Standards into the Observer reports on the claims of Beattie Media to have special access to Scottish ministers,” the October minute states.

“As he made clear to the Parliament, on the basis of the facts know (sic) to him and the assurances he had obtained from the ministerial colleagues named in the covertly filmed meeting, there was no substance in the allegations.”

It added: “Given the nature of the allegations against him, Mr McConnell had offered to make all relevant material about his engagements available to the committee but this need not be regarded as a precedent which others would have to follow.

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“An internal investigation into the contracts and contacts between public relations and professional lobbying firms and the public bodies for which the Executive was responsible had also been set in hand.

“Mr McConnell expressed his gratitude to colleagues for their support over the previous week.”

Cabinet papers also reveal the steps taken to plug the leaks from the early Executive after a Cabinet paper found its way into the press.

Mr Dewar outlined “straightforward steps” ministers and officials could take to avoid leaks, including greater care when reading them in the public chamber and ensuring someone accompanied ministers on public transport to look after their papers.

It states: “Staff in departments and private offices could contribute to improved security by taking care in the use of language when drafting minutes and papers on particularly sensitive subjects or when recording the views of ministers.”

It advised officials to set out pros and cons on the most sensitive subjects rather than setting down “firm recommendations or conclusions”.

Commenting on the release of the 1999 minutes, Tim Ellis, keeper of the records of Scotland, said: “These papers provide an interesting glimpse into the considerations of the then newly-established Scottish Cabinet.

“They add significantly to the broad range of historical records about government activities in Scotland now available to researchers.

“They complement the other unique information about Scotland’s people and history that NRS holds on behalf of the nation.”

Visiting the archives at the National Records of Scotland, Joe FitzPatrick, current SNP minister for parliamentary business, said: “I’m sure the first papers of the Scottish Cabinet included in this latest file release will prove fascinating reading for politicians, historians and the wider public.

“Information made available at the National Records of Scotland as well as the wealth of information proactively made available on the Scottish Government’s website demonstrates this Government’s ongoing commitment to openness and transparency.

“The Scottish Government is proud of its record in ensuring Scotland’s freedom of information legislation remains up-to-date and the most robust across the UK.”

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