Thursday, March 19, 2009

Secret Scotland : First Minister refuses Freedom of Information access to cabinet minutes

Funny how the tables turn on those who shout the loudest ... and this time the tables are well & truly turned on First Minister Alex Salmond and the Scottish Government, who, after leading a campaign to demand the release of the Westminster Cabinet minutes relating to the decision to go to war in Iraq, now refuses Freedom of Information requests for access to Cabinet minutes of the Scottish Government.

The First Minister must have asked for a wee bit legal advice on that too from the Government Legal Service for Scotland (GLSS). The Scotsman newspaper, who originated the FOI request, might think to ask for that legal advice too perhaps ... just to complete the picture.

Freedom of Information seems to have been in the news quite a bit this past week .. with Kenny MacAskill’s Justice Department fiddling the FOIs of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission. What a band of chancers this lot are turning out to be (stop quoting wee Mags from Glasgow ! – Ed)

The Scotsman reports :

SNP 'hypocrisy' as it insists on keeping Cabinet papers secret

Published Date: 19 March 2009

THE SNP has been accused of double standards and hypocrisy over freedom of information after the Scottish Government insisted on keeping its Cabinet discussions secret.

The Nationalists led protests last month against the decision by Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, to ignore a call from the Information Commissioner to publish the minutes of key UK Cabinet meetings in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

But the SNP has now turned down a request from The Scotsman, made under freedom of information laws, for the release of Scottish Government Cabinet minutes from 10 February, when ministers decided to drop a bill to replace the council tax with a local income tax (LIT).

There is suspicion that the decision was forced through by Alex Salmond, the First Minister, and John Swinney, the finance secretary, against opposition from their colleagues. But the only way any Cabinet split could be proven would be through the publication of the minutes.

However, the reason for the refusal was similar to the one given by Mr Straw – the need for ministers to feel they could hold free and frank discussions.

David McLetchie, the Scottish Conservatives' chief whip, said: "This is a classic case of saying one thing in opposition in Westminster and doing another in government in Edinburgh."

He pointed out that Mr Straw's refusal regarded a matter of national security, while LIT "is hardly in the same league".

Lord Foulkes, a Labour MSP, said: "The hypocrisy and double standards of the SNP is quite staggering."

The Liberal Democrats, who had been in negotiations with the SNP to try to get LIT through Holyrood, also want answers. Mike Rumbles, their chief whip, said: "What are the SNP covering up over LIT? It certainly suggests that there were splits in the Cabinet over dropping LIT."

Refusing The Scotsman's request, the Scottish Government said: "While we aim to provide information when we can, it is important that Cabinet can operate in an environment which allows ministers to have thorough discussion and debate before reaching decisions."

Opponents say the SNP's stance is far removed from its earlier rhetoric.

When Mr Straw made his decision, Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, said: "This Cabinet cover-up is typical of the Labour government's attitude to freedom of information."

In addition, 17 SNP MSPs signed a Holyrood motion condemning the decision.

At First Minister's Questions last week, Mr Salmond boasted of his government's greater transparency.

Answering a question from the Nationalist MSP Christine Grahame, he said: "I certainly agree that this government is much more accountable and transparent than the Labour government in London."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "There is a big difference between these two requests because there are suspicions parliament (Westminster] was misled over Iraq and the only way of seeing if that was true is for the minutes to be published. It was an issue of huge importance and national security."


AS THE Scottish Government has refused to release its Cabinet minutes, an appeal can be made to its most senior civil servant, John Elvidge.

The next appeal would be to Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner. If he tells the Scottish Government to publish, it must either do so or appeal to the Court of Session.

However, if it followed the example of the UK government over the Iraq war Cabinet minutes and simply refused to publish, it would be the Scottish Information Commissioner who would take the issue to the Court of Session.

Appeals can go all the way to the House of Lords.

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