Parliament's secret war that's doo sensitive to read about

IT'S the kind of information black-out normally associated with Cold War spying sagas and other threats to the safety of the nation.

Page after page of official documents scored through with the censor's heavy black marker pen, with nothing - or next to nothing - deemed fit for the public eye.

Such tough action has been demanded by Scottish Parliament bosses to protect sensitive material surrounding a pressing matter facing Holyrood - the problem of pigeons plaguing the new parliament building.

The birds have been causing a nuisance at the 431 million award-winning building since before it opened last year, with pigeon muck and feathers getting through vents into MSPs' offices. But a request under the Freedom of Information Act for documents showing how the parliament had addressed the issue produced 376 pages - most of them blacked out.

And today politicians demanded to know why the apparently innocuous matter of pigeons and their droppings should be surrounded by such secrecy.

The Evening News lodged the request on July 25 and it took the parliament two and a half months to produce the information.

But 149 of the pages are completely blacked out and a further 102 are blacked out except for the heading or sign-off of the document.

There are also many other deletions. And many of the pages which were not blacked out consisted simply of e-mails trying to arrange for meetings or the delivery of reports.

A covering letter justifies the withholding of the information on grounds it includes "personal information" or that its disclosure would harm commercial interests or would "prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs".

Details which have been deleted from the documents even include the names of MSPs complaining about pigeon muck and feathers in their offices.

One two-page letter was entirely deleted apart from the presiding officer's name at the end, not even saying to whom it was sent.

And a major 50-page report included in the file was completely blacked out, with not even the title of the report left visible. The Evening News has discovered that one of the documents withheld was a letter originally sent to Lothians MSP Margo MacDonald from a bird control company in the United States, suggesting an "electrical bird deterrent system". Heath Waldorf of Bell Bird Control said it involved an invisible strip wired to solar units on the rooftop which delivered a harmless electrical shock to "teach birds not to land there any more".

The letter was withheld by the parliament on the grounds it could "prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs".

Independent Lothians MSP Margo MacDonald joked that the pigeons must have got into parliament officials' office and messed up the files.

She said: "This makes a total mockery of the idea of freedom of information or else there is total cynicism operating among the parliament officials as regards the requirement on them to come clean on everything except matters of national security."

And Liberal Democrat MSP Donald Gorrie branded the parliament's stance "ridiculous".

"It's completely over the top. People will look at this and it's the usual attitude of secrecy which is what freedom of information was meant to change."

A parliament spokesman said: "Certain information has been withheld because it is either commercially confidential, relates to the free and frank exchange of views or is personal information which would be unfair to disclose." A spokeswoman for the Scottish Information Commissioner said they could not comment on the parliament's decision. But she said where parts of a document requested were exempt from release, public authorities were still expected to provide the parts that were not exempt.

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