Exclusive:Scottish independence: Ministers wrongly kept secret analysis on how long it would take independent Scotland to join the EU
Ministers have been found to have broken transparency rules by failing to publish analysis around how long it might take an independent Scotland to join the EU.
The Scottish Information Commissioner has ordered the Scottish Government to publish several documents it had previously fought to keep secret, with transparency chiefs stating their release would aid voters in making “more informed decisions” at any future independence referendum.
The ruling comes as Humza Yousaf continues to set out the SNP’s refreshed case for independence, with several more papers outlining the ‘refreshed prospectus’ on independence set to be published in coming months.
However, his Government was criticised for keeping “mundane” information unnecessarily secret and for claiming analysis held by ministers about how long it took other countries to join the EU was irrelevant to considerations around Scotland’s timescale for joining the political union.
Joining the EU as an independent nation is central to the SNP’s campaign for independence following Brexit. But the party has claimed it would be able to negotiate a special relationship with the bloc that would not require using the Euro or a hard customs border with the rest of the United Kingdom.
Ministers were initially asked to release “any analysis that the Scottish Government have carried out, since 2016, which assesses the timeframe which would be required for an independent Scotland to re-join the EU” in July 2021. The Government claimed several documents were out of scope or could only be released redacted.
Among them are documents about other nations’ timescales for joining the EU, which ministers claimed was “not relevant” to the initial request.
However, this argument was rejected by commissioner Daren Fitzhenry, who said there would be “no apparent reason for any such information to be held, unless the experience of those other nations was considered relevant to how long it might take Scotland to join the EU”, stating if this wasn’t the case “any such inclusion must have been entirely random, which is surely not what the ministers intended”.
Mr Fitzhenry, who is set to leave the role later this year and be replaced by David Hamilton, the former chair of the Scottish Police Federation, also said the public interest in the information around timescales being made public was obvious.
He said: “There is a strong public interest in allowing the public to understand the various options open to an independent Scotland, in relation to re-joining the EU and in understanding how long each option might take.
“There are strong public interest arguments that the analysis the ministers have undertaken in this regard should be made available to the wider electorate, as they consider what their vote in any potential second independence referendum would be. Disclosure of this information would enable the voting public to make a more informed decision and this is clearly in the public interest.
“Given the prominence and importance of the issue of an independent Scotland being able to re-join the EU, the commissioner considers that, if the ministers held any advice on how long that process would be likely to take, then its disclosure would be very much in the public interest.
“The commissioner takes the view that the length of time it would take to re-join the EU might well be a key factor for individuals in deciding how to cast their vote in any potential second referendum on Scottish independence.”
Ministers were also found to have only partially complied with Freedom of Information legislation by withholding some of the information due to fears its publication would “inhibit substantially the free and frank exchange of views for deliberation”, and for deeming some of the documents as out of scope.
The Scottish Government was contacted for comment.
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