FOI row prompts calls for John Swinney to be probed over emails

Opposition politicians today called for John Swinney to be probed over emails revealing he wanted to withhold material requested from the Scottish Government under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws.

John Swinney. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
John Swinney. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Lib Dem MSP Tavish Scott has written to Scotland’s Information Commissioner demanding an investigation into emails, which included correspondence saying that the Deputy First Minister was against releasing information concerning Prince Charles.

The chain of emails, published today, also appeared to show FOI requests being screened by the government’s special advisers.

The involvement of special advisers, who have a political role in government, led to claims at Holyrood that the government was holding back information in case it proved politically embarrassing.

The row erupted when the lecturer and journalist James McEnaney released official correspondence he obtained after a seven month battle with the Government.

The emails included one dated 23 June 2017, which suggests that documents scheduled for release were removed following the intervention of Colin McAllister, a special adviser.

An email sent on June 30 last year from Mr Swinney’s department indicated that the Deputy First Minister was against releasing information about Prince Charles and his interest in the Teach First education charity.

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Last year it emerged that the Prince of Wales had discussions with then First Minister Alex Salmond in 2013 about Teach First, a charity that trains teachers.

The email referred to a FOI request and said: “DFM (Deputy First Minister) is content for this to go but thinks it would be better to see if we could not release the material relating to Prince Charles or his PS (Private Secretary – name redacted).

“He specifically referenced documents 20,24,24,26 as ones he’d prefer were not released.”

Mr Scott said he was writing to the Information Commissioner Daren Fitzhenry seeking an urgent investigation.

“These new documents suggest that special advisers were interfering in the content of replies to freedom of information requests in the very same week that ministers told me and Parliament they weren’t,” Mr Scott said.

“If information scheduled for release into the public domain was withheld solely on the basis that a minister would `prefer’ it was not released, it would seriously damage public confidence in their right to information.

“There can be no meddling of this nature.” The matter was raised with Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions by the Labour MSP Rhoda Grant.

Ms Grant said: “The First Minister appears to be aware that her government and their special advisers are holding back material from FOIs that could cause them embarrassment.

“Does she therefore believe that saving their own blushes is more important than transparency, and indeed, the law?”

The Scottish Conservatives said the emails suggested that Scottish Government’s parliament minister Joe Fitzpatrick had misled parliament when he spoke in a debate on FOI last year.

When asked whether requests were being screened for potential political damage by special advisers in June, Mr Fitzpatrick responded: “No, requests are all prepared by Scottish Government officials. Special advisers have a role in assessing draft responses for accuracy.”

The Conservative MSP Edward Mountain said: “The evidence suggests that special advisers are routinely involved in the freedom of information process for political purposes and John Swinney himself is suppressing documents when it suits him.

“Mr Fitzpatrick categorically denied this on the floor of the Scottish Parliament.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Freedom of Information requests are prepared by Scottish Government officials who seek comments from relevant parts of the organisation, including Special Advisors and other officials, and consider whether Ministerial clearance should be sought.

“The legal duty to comply with FOI legislation lies with Scottish Ministers. As Ministers are accountable it is entirely appropriate for them to decide whether they are content with proposed information releases and exemptions applied in line with the FOI Act.

“The Scottish Government continues to work with the Information Commissioner to provide information in as timely a way as possible, while continuing to look for opportunities to proactively release information. Since 3 July, 1129 FoI releases have been proactively published on the Scottish Government’s website. In addition, despite a 45 per cent rise in FOI requests in 2017, the Scottish Government has achieved an on-time response rate of 83 per cent, up from 76 per cent in 2016, replying to 2441 requests on time – around 300 more than the total number of requests received in either 2015 or 2016.”

The Information Commissioner’s office said it was already looking at the Scottish Government’s FOI performance. Yesterday it published a letter saying officials and ministers (staff and office holders) could be interviewed as part of this process.