SNP ministers accused of presiding over a ‘culture of secrecy’

Humza Yousaf's SNP government faces an investigation by the Scottish Information Commissioner over the retention of informal messaging
Humza Yousaf's SNP government faces an investigation by the Scottish Information Commissioner over the retention of informal messaging - JEFF J MITCHELL/GETTY IMAGES

SNP ministers have been accused of presiding over a “culture of secrecy” after new evidence emerged that they were flouting transparency laws.

According to figures obtained by Scottish Labour, fewer than a third of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests were answered in full and within a 20 working day legal limit.

It follows the Scottish Information Commissioner revealing earlier this month he would launch an investigation into the Scottish Government’s retention of informal messaging following scrutiny over deleted WhatsApps at the UK Covid Inquiry.

Messages that were obtained by the inquiry appeared to show senior Scottish Government officials joking with one another about how to defeat FOI requests by deleting messages, therefore ensuring it would be impossible to ever disclose them.

The Scottish Government issued a full response within the 20-day timescale for 1,434 FOI requests in 2023, according to Scottish Labour figures.

However, last year 4,459 were received – meaning about 68 per cent were either late, refused or redacted.

While it is lawful to turn down requests if certain exemptions apply, they should all be answered within 20 working days.

‘SNP trying to stifle scrutiny’

“Once again the SNP is treating the public with contempt and attempting to stifle scrutiny,” said Dame Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader.

“Time and time again we see the SNP’s disregard for transparency on display, from their woeful record on FOIs to the shameful destruction of evidence during the Covid pandemic.

“Scotland deserves better than the rotten culture of secrecy and cover-up this SNP Government has created.”

Katy Clark, the Scottish Labour MSP, is set to introduce a Bill to Holyrood, designed to broaden right-to-know legislation, after gaining cross-party support.

The proposals include extending coverage to all bodies delivering public services and would also introduce a statutory duty for information to be proactively published.

George Adam, the minister for parliamentary business, said: “The Scottish Government is currently responding to 97 per cent of FOI requests within the statutory deadline, despite an increase of 66 per cent in requests since 2019, to over 5,000 requests in 2023.

‘Necessary exemptions’

“Inevitably, it is sometimes necessary for organisations’ responses to apply the exemptions – as Parliament agreed when passing the legislation, for example to withhold personal data such as names.

“Scotland has the most open and far-reaching Freedom of Information legislation in the UK, and the Scottish Government remains committed to our obligations under the act to ensure openness and transparency.”

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