THE Scottish Government breached its own Freedom of Information (FOI) rules, an official has report has found, by not releasing e-mails which opposition parties say exposed attempts to “nobble” a leading expert who clashed with ministers over the referendum.
Scotland’s Information commissioner has ruled that ministers “frustrated” an FOI request during a row with elections expert Dr Matt Qvortrup who had questioned proposals for a second referendum question on more devolution for Holyrood.
The Scottish Government’s top civil servant is now facing fresh calls to re-open an inquiry into the row.
The ruling heaps fresh pressure on the SNP over compliance with FOI, after ministers clashed with information commissioner Rosemary Agnew last year over the existence of legal advice on Scotland’s place in Europe after independence. It later emerged there was no such advice.
In the latest clash, Ms Agnew says ministers “failed to take adequate steps to identify, locate and provide the information requested”.
First Minister Alex Salmond read out a letter to MSPs at Holyrood in October 2011, purporting to be from Dr Qvortrup, recanting his referendum criticism in a newspaper article. But Mr Salmond was forced to apologise after it turned out this had been drafted by an SNP adviser and was not endorsed by the academic.
The Scottish Government did release a series of e-mails under FOI rules detailing communications between officials and the academic after requests from Labour.
But officials witheld an exchange in which SNP adviser Kevin Pringle attempted to get the academic to change tack and urged him to claim he had acted first without interference from the government. It was only released under appeal.
Labour’s Hugh Henry said the ruling left further questions for Mr Salmond to answer over the affair.
“The Information Commissioner’s decision is a damning indictment of the disgraceful manner in which the SNP government operates and the extraordinary lengths they will go to cover up their deceit,” Mr Henry said.
“It was serious enough that the First Minister read out a faked letter of retraction to parliament, but for his adviser to then seek to persuade Dr Qvortrup to be complicit in a fraud and then withhold the incriminating e-mails, confirms that this SNP administration is incapable of being straight with the Scottish people.
“There remain big questions as to what the First Minister knew about the attempt to nobble Dr Qvortrup and the subsequent cover-up.
“If Mr Salmond is clinging to the excuse he was misled himself, why was no disciplinary action taken against those responsible? In light of this ruling I intend to write again to Permanent Secretary.” A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We have received the Information Commissioner’s decision and are considering its terms.”