SNP government has a culture of secrecy and cover-up that is damaging democracy – Anas Sarwar MSP

It was the Labour-led government who delivered Freedom of Information, enshrining in law the fundamental belief that the public have the right to access information.

Nicola Sturgeon's SNP have turned the principles of transparency and responsibility into meaningless buzzwords (Picture: Jane Barlow/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon's SNP have turned the principles of transparency and responsibility into meaningless buzzwords (Picture: Jane Barlow/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

These world-leading laws were hailed as a watershed moment at the time – they put power into the hands of the public and shone a light on decisions being made at the highest level of government.

They sought to redress the balance between individuals and powerful public bodies, instil openness in government, and – ultimately – build trust in politics.

To this day, these laws remain an important legacy of the last Labour government. Everyday across the country, journalists and members of the public use these tools to hold the powerful to account.

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But this legacy is under attack by the SNP.

I’ve spoken out recently about the corrosive culture of secrecy at the heart of the SNP and the existential threat this poses to transparent and open government in Scotland.

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Nowhere is this clearer than the blatant contempt the SNP government shown towards Freedom of Information (FOI) laws.

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This week the Scotsman revealed that the SNP have had their knuckles rapped once again by the Scottish Information Commissioner, who rebuked their attempt to withhold the legal advice about a second independence referendum.

This bombshell ruling will send ripples through Scottish politics, and if the advice exists it must be released right away – but we can’t escape the fact this is all fallout from a game the SNP are playing with the full support of Tories.

Both are happy to stoke up talk of a second referendum in a bid to distract from their failings in government, which have left people across the country struggling with the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades.

What this debacle has exposed is the lengths the SNP will go to in an effort to block the release of this information – information that is so clearly in the public interest.

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This aspect of the story is one that we have seen play out time and time again.

They fought a losing battle to keep the public in the dark about a crucial piece of pandemic modelling at a time when public trust and transparency were arguably more essential than ever.

FOI responses are routinely late and redacted beyond recognition – and even more so if your email address happens to include the name of a newspaper or the word “parliament”.

They will delay, and obfuscate and play for time in the hope that people give up.

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Not content with riding roughshod over the legislation, the SNP attempted to rip it up entirely at the start of the pandemic, using emergency legislation to introduce sweeping changes.

These curbs were quickly overturned by opposition parties, but the incident laid bare the SNP’s attitude to open government and to scrutiny in general.

Of course, FOI laws are not the only form of accountability that they treat with disdain. Parliamentary votes that the SNP lose are simply ignored. Holyrood committees are palmed off, and journalists are locked out of events.

Even the Auditor General has struggled to get answers from this secretive government, with the watchdog’s reports repeatedly exposing a lack of transparency and paper trails.

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Perhaps the most damning Audit Scotland report yet was their investigation into the Ferguson Marine ferries.

Already five years late and more than £150 million over budget, these two ferries have become an emblem for SNP incompetence – but they are just as much a symbol of the systemic secrecy at the heart of their government. They are failing a skilled workforce and the taxpayer and now they want to cover it up.

At every turn, the SNP have stonewalled, blocked questions and passed the buck. Ministers say they are being transparent, but refuse to give any answers. Nicola Sturgeon says she takes responsibility, but nothing changes.

These principles of transparency and responsibility should be guiding values at the heart of government, but the SNP have rendered them meaningless buzzwords, used only to deflect questions.

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And, all the while, we still don’t know why the SNP government chose to plough ahead with the doomed contract despite receiving stark warnings against it.

We still don’t know what happened to the infamous missing papers documenting this decision, which might shed some light on this sorry affair.

And we still don’t know who is responsible for the litany of mistakes that have left islanders without a ferry, taxpayers with a sizeable bill, and the yard’s proud workers struggling to fix a problem they didn’t create.

Across the board, the SNP have fostered a culture of cover-up, and the most devastating example of this is the scandal at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital.

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Families dealing with unthinkable tragedies were forced to fight for the truth, while the health board and the government covered themselves. To this day, there has been no accountability and no real justice.

This culture of secrecy and cover-up are embedded at the heart of this SNP government, and these patterns will continue without a full overhaul.

That’s why I wrote to the Scottish Government's new Permanent Secretary urging him to carry out an independent investigation into government transparency, so that he can deliver a fresh start.

We need a comprehensive and unflinching investigation to end widespread and deeply engrained secrecy, and restore accountability and transparency into government.

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Journalists and the public shouldn’t have to fight every step of the way to make the SNP answer questions. Minister shouldn’t be wasting time and money trying to avoid them.

This is not about finding scandals or landing blows on political opponents – this is about what kind of democracy we are.

This is about honesty, transparency, and ensuring vested interests never outweigh the public interest.

Scotland deserves better.

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Anas Sarwar is Scottish Labour leader and an MSP for Glasgow

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