Covid Scotland: Year-and-half wait and Nike conference 'cover up' among worst SNP transparency breaches

Ministers refused to answer questions on the Covid-19 outbreak at the Nike Conference in Edinburgh for almost a year, it has emerged, as the worst breaches of transparency legislation by the Scottish Government are revealed.

One member of the public was forced to wait almost a year and a half for answers on hospital and care home admission policy during the pandemic, requesting the information in May 2020 and only receiving a response in October 2021.

Opposition parties said the SNP deliberately try to “hide and obfuscate the truth”, operate with a “dismissive attitude towards transparency”, and are “addicted to secrecy”.

The revelations comes just weeks after Nicola Sturgeon claimed her government is “totally transparent” despite being found to have unlawfully withheld Covid-19 modelling data from the public and being rebuked by the Scottish Information Commissioner around the Lochaber guarantee.

Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly claimed the Scottish Government is transparent

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Under freedom of information (FOI) legislation, the government is legally required to respond to FOI requests within 20 working days, however it regularly breaks this limit and some responses can take months.

The Scotsman requested the ten longest waits for responses to FOI requests, with five different requests on the Covid-19 outbreak at the Edinburgh Nike conference making up half of the list.

The longest single wait was 361 working days for government papers on hospital and care home admission which was requested on May 4, 2020, and only responded to on October 6, 2021, almost 18 months later.

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Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP, Willie Rennie, called on the government to reform FOI legislation.

He said: “The government has an addiction to secrecy.

"Information that should be in the public domain is either sat on for months on end or publication refused on spurious grounds.

"It's time to reform freedom of information laws and properly resource the Information Commissioner's office so that the right to information is protected and strengthened."

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Officials also took more than a year, with the request submitted in October 2020 and only answered in December 2021, to answer questions on ministerial pay which it then claimed it partially didn’t hold.

Four separate requests on the Nike Conference were submitted in May with an additional request in June 2020, with all answered a year late in June 2021 and with significant information missing from the disclosures.

Another long wait, between April 2, 2020 and March 2, 2021, was for correspondence between ministers and officials on the changes to FOI legislation planned in response to the pandemic.

At the time, health secretary Jeane Freeman had pushed for FOI to be suspended for the duration of the pandemic, with those plans watered down to extending the statutory deadline – measures which were later rolled back.

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Ian Murray, the shadow Scotland Secretary, said the long waits around the Nike Conference were “shameful” and accused the SNP of a “cover up”.

The Scottish Labour MP said: “The people of Scotland deserve transparency from their government, but instead the SNP try to hide and obfuscate the truth.

“The SNP has repeatedly tried to cover up the scandal surrounding the Nike conference, and now we find they took a year to respond to freedom of information requests.

“This lack of honesty at the heart of government is shameful, and the public deserve better.”

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Stephen Kerr, the Scottish Conservative’s chief whip, said the figures showed the SNP are “happy to kick crucial questions into the long grass”.

He said: “The fact that they took over 250 working days to respond to queries over the Nike conference will raise eyebrows given that it was a subject the SNP Government were heavily criticised on.

“Perhaps these lengthy delays shouldn’t be a surprise given the SNP were keen to suspend Freedom Of Information requests altogether at the height of the pandemic.

“Ministers are routinely more focused on spin and secrecy rather than being straight with the public.”

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The Scottish Government defended its approach to FOI requests and the delay, stating that in 2021 the government responded to a record 4,334 requests, up 29 per cent compared to 2020.

It also claimed that the delays were due to dealing with the first wave of Covid, that an average of 85 per cent of responses are on time, and that it continues to aim for the 95 per cent target for timeous responses set by the Scottish Information Commissioner.

Asked whether it would legislate to make sanctions for breaching FOI more serious, the government did not comment.

A spokesperson said: “Scotland already has the most open and far-reaching Freedom of Information legislation in the UK.

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“A public consultation on how FOI law could be modernised, which takes into account the recommendations of the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, will soon be published by the Scottish Government.

“Scottish Ministers will continue to use their powers under existing legislation to maintain and, where appropriate, extend the scope of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act.”

Want to hear more from The Scotsman's politics team? Check out the latest episode of our political podcast, The Steamie.

It's available wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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