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Focus on... Freedom of Information

Corrie Innes

The Scottish Government has published records of its correspondence with Donald Trump, dating from the US President’s long-running dispute with the Government over his golf course and resort developments.

The documents are just one example of the fruits of the Government’s decision to begin publishing all its Freedom of Information releases online, as opposed to releasing them only to the people that requested them. The decision came in response to pressure on the SNP over the transparency of its government in general, and the FoI system in particular. It has proven controversial, but has already brought several significant stories into the public eye.

In April, the Scottish Information Commissioner stood down. Margaret Keyse was appointed acting Commissioner while the Scottish Parliament’s selection panel set about finding a permanent replacement. Seeing the opportunity to highlight their concerns, a group of 23 journalists signed a letter to the panel complaining of abuses to the FoI system and a decay in its standards. It noted that requests were frequently delayed beyond the 20-day legal limit or refused for tenuous reasons. And among other concerns, special advisers habitually screened responses for potential political impact. They criticised the growing trend of “informal” ministerial meetings at which no minutes were taken. Margaret Keyse welcomed the letter, saying it pointed to “potentially serious breaches of a statutory duty”.

Two weeks later, Neil Findlay led a Members’ Business debate on the issue, in which he attacked the “systematic avoidance of scrutiny and accountability” by the Government and called for a “wholesale review” of the FoI system. He said the culture of opacity permeated the system, echoing the concerns of the journalists’ letter. A week later again, Edward Mountain lodged a motion condemning the Scottish Government for its FoI performance, which passed with unanimous support after Minister for Parliamentary Business, Joe FitzPatrick, added an amendment in which the Government pledged to pro-actively publish all FoI material online to ensure as wide as possible public access.

Since them, several pieces of information have been released under FoI which have grabbed the headlines. Last week, newly published correspondence with Donald Trump interesting. It hints at the early bromance between Trump and Alex Salmond, when the property mogul would send the then First Minister favourable press clippings – “Alex – in case you did not see this – great form”. Things soon soured however, and before long The Donald was hunting out articles lamenting the fate of bald eagles caught in the blades of wind turbines. The photocopies captioned, ominously, “Send to Alex S”. Elsewhere, textbook Trumpian hyperbole abounds. In December 2015, he rebuked First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon in his standard sub-Bond villain pastiche: “I have heard a movement is going on in Scotland. I only wish I would have been informed prior to my £200m investment.”

The Trump letters are interesting and without the decision to pro-actively publish them, they would not be as widely or as readily available to the public. But the policy is not without criticism. The charge that making FoI documents available more easily makes government less transparent is a counter-intuitive one, but it has traction. Immediately publishing information removes the incentive for journalists to pursue stories, argues Tavish Scott, as anything they uncover will be immediately available to their rivals.

Figures including Andy Wightman have suggested a delay between the release of information to the petitioner and its wider publication as a fix for this issue, but there remain wider questions around the transparency of the Scottish Government in general. The decision to pro-actively publish FoI releases does not address the wider issues raised in the original letter or by opposition MSPS and indeed could be seen as a superficial distraction from systemic problems.

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