Brian Wilson: How the SNP keeps information at a premium

Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew has apologised to Holyrood for any distress caused. Picture: Julie Bull
Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew has apologised to Holyrood for any distress caused. Picture: Julie Bull
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The Information Commissioner is putting requests on hold that might put ministers in a critical light until after polling day, writes Brian Wilson

There are many good reasons why a Nationalist majority at Holyrood is undesirable and this week’s extraordinary story about the Scottish Information Commission points to one of them – the fear and forelock factor pervading public and civic Scotland.

It comes in many forms. I noticed a tweet yesterday from Loki The Scottish Rapper who had the temerity to intimate to his followers that he would not be voting SNP. Later, he mused: “Scariest thing you can do in Scotland is say you’re not voting SNP. And I’m fae Pollok”.

Rappers can look after themselves but others feel more vulnerable. Every organisation under power or patronage now acts on an unhealthy concern about keeping its nose clean. This is in anticipation of dealing with the same politicians, with enhanced untouchability, following 5 May.

Every society needs checks and balances but Scotland risks voting them away. Freedom of Information is a Labour legacy – a rare example of any government legislating for a petard on which to be hoist, as duly happened. But that’s how progress is made – not by resisting fundamental rights for fear they might rebound.

It’s instructive to compare the noble intent of FoI with how it is routinely obstructed in Scotland. The Scottish Government resists every application with potential to cause the slightest political embarrassment. Applicants must appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner – then wait, and wait and wait…

This week’s story went further. Last September, James McEnaney, education spokesman for pro-independence party RISE, was smart enough to notice a reference to the introduction of National Testing in primary schools being based on four e-mails from two individuals.

He filed an FoI request for release of the e-mails. There were only four e-mails. A matter of legitimate public interest was involved with people were entitled to know where this policy had suddenly emerged from. Fat chance.

Six months later, there is no decision. Worse, a letter to Mr McEnaney explained that the Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, “decided not to issue any decisions which might put forward a critical view of ministers” until after polling day. She is the first commissioner in the UK to volunteer for purdah.

Ms Agnew has since written to Holyrood, to which she is accountable, apologising “for inconvenience and distress caused” which scarcely addresses the point. Indeed, she makes matters worse by declaring she delayed three rulings in the run-up to the referendum – two on Alex Salmond and Co’s expenses and one on university entrance statistics.

As Mr McEnaney commented: “We now know that the Scottish Information Commission is basing some of its decisions, and the timing of their release, on political – not public interest – grounds. This is deeply worrying and calls into question the role of the Commissioner”. Who guards the guards, and all that.

Over the years, FoI requests have elicited important Scottish information, despite resistance. Most significantly, 18 months persistence was required from Catherine Stihler MEP before it was confirmed that the Alex Salmond’s “legal advice” on EU membership was a mendacious fiction – a revelation of historic significance.

Most information sought under FoI is less consequential – but still vital to informing public debate. However, the Scottish Government repeatedly wields an authoritarian hammer in order to crack the nut of temporary embarrassment – and more often than not gets away with it.

Looking over cases awaiting determination, the name “Freeman Associates” caught my eye. This is the business vehicle of a lobbyist who has been dubbed “Queen of the Quangos” for her multiple appointments by Scottish Ministers, including membership of the dismal Scottish Police Authority and chair of an NHS Trust.

Apart from being a lobbyist and quangoteer, Jeanne Freeman was leading light in Women for Independence and is now an SNP candidate, parachuted into South Ayrshire by Nicola Sturgeon. Last August, a researcher lodged an FoI request about Freeman Associates’ meetings with ministers and officials.

Given Freeman’s multiple and potentially conflicting roles, there were clearly legitimate grounds for seeking information about contacts between her commercial guise, Freeman Associates, and the Scottish Government. Equally, it would be reasonable to expect any minister or official meeting “Freeman Associates” to be conscious of the same issue.

However, the Scottish Government has successfully obstructed release of that information for eight months on the grounds that it would cost more than £600 to provide an answer – the maximum in dealing with any request required by the rule. They claim that no central record is kept so, to provide the information, every single minister and civil servant in the Scottish Government would have to be asked if they had met Freeman Associates in the time-frame stipulated. And that would cost more than £600.

This is so spurious as to be deemed absurd in any court of common sense. But it has served the purpose of neutering a reasonable question on a matter of legitimate public interest. I am pretty sure the cost of ongoing correspondence between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Information Commissioner will be well north of £600. But then, this is not really about cost – it is about concealment. And it happens repeatedly, so many simply give up.

I am not so naïve as to believe that the denial of any single FoI request will make more than a marginal difference to the current mood of Scottish politics. But I am absolutely certain that the systematic contempt for Freedom of Information is symptomatic of a much wider malaise which cries out to be resisted.

Meanwhile, I am curious about a meeting which (according the Chinese press) took place at Bute House on 21 March, pre-purdah. Nicola Sturgeon reportedly signed a Memorandum of Understanding with a Chinese company called SinoFortune to invest £10 billion in infrastructure projects. Dancing attendance was Sir Brian Souter, whose company was recently nailed by HMRC for an £11 million tax avoidance scheme.

My previous understanding was that the SNP regarded private funding of infrastructure as a Very Bad Thing. So there are a lots of interesting questions about the terms of this deal; what it will cost future generations; why it was not intimated to MSPs and, of course, the role of Souter.

Ms Agnew will doubtless ensure that answers are provided prior to the Scottish elections – of 2020.