Another week, another FOI stushie. This one, of course, is the biggie.
Catherine Stihler MEP submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Scottish Government last year seeking publication of any legal advice received relating to an independent Scotland’s membership of the European Union. Given the importance of the issue to the constitutional debate, it would be reasonable to assume that advice has been sought from legal sources within and without government. Or so Catherine Stihler thinks.
The Scottish Government? Well, it says no, hiding behind one of the many excuses in its armoury allowing it to refuse to publish requested information. Section 18 allowed it to refuse publication because it would not be in the public interest.
In July this year, the Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, disagreed and ordered release of the information. The Scottish Government has now appealed, eliciting another exasperated response from the Commissioner.
There’s a growing trend where the Scottish Government resists but is eventually made to release information. Every week, there seems to be another, which is not surprising really, when journalists have cottoned on to them as a tool to dig out a story. Paul Hutcheon at the Sunday Herald, in particular, seems fond of the device having accounted for over 60% of all requests from journalists or media sources.
Which is not to criticise him. If information is not being made available publicly, everyone has a right to use Freedom of Information legislation to try and access it, be they a concerned citizen or someone paid to do a job that requires that information. Journalists are not the only ones to try and sniff out some facts.
But requests being dismissed by the Scottish Government, with the information then having to be dragged out of them following an investigation by the Information Commissioner, seems to have become commonplace. The cost of such machinations is one thing; the damage caused to the SNP and its Government is potentially quite another.
The more they try to hide behind its exemptions, the more we come to believe they really do have something to hide. Governments require trust to operate and this one is in grave danger of squandering theirs. At the time, the SNP needs it most.
No politician or government likes bad news: it rather spoils the narrative. But worse is that bad news coming out anyway after vigorous attempts to suppress it. Especially for a government elected in 2007 and then returned resoundingly on a platform of being different from what had gone before. Trusted by voters to do different and to behave differently was a factor in the SNP’s election and re-election, something officials and Ministers alike appear to have lost sight of.
It is not good enough for the SNP – of all parties – to point the finger and say we are only doing as the Unionists did when they were in power at Holyrood. Or to suggest that they are only applying the same standards as Westminster does. It somewhat confuses the voter, seeking to emulate the very institutions and parties which you have spent decades dismissing and diminishing for their overbearing attitude towards Scotland.
The Scottish Government might have calculated – perhaps rightly – that it can get away with one or two stushies like this. What is debilitating – to it and to its reputation – is the constant drip feed of requests refused and then forced out of them. It is the totality of the behaviour rather than the specifics of each and every request which lingers in the memory of the voters.
Yet, the more the government resists, the more the journalists especially will come seeking. And there are only so many occasions upon which the public are prepared to trust the government’s view of things and dismiss such requests as mischief-making by those who are out to get the SNP and its government. Far better surely, to determine to operate transparently and openly, and pre-empt such requests by voluntarily publishing information which does not necessarily paint the government in the best light. Prebuttal rather than rebuttal.
There’s a curious irony that in its earliest days as a minority administration, the SNP demonstrated that it was a government confident in its own abilities and comfortable in its own skin when it sat atop a shoogly house of cards, but that its resilience has somewhat diminished with majority rule.
How did it come to this? How has paranoia creeped in and now set in, in the mindset of this Scottish Government?
The referendum has a lot to do with it. It’s not just on FOI requests that the government is leaning heavily on the side of caution to avoid negative headlines. Apparently, backbench MSPs are regularly treated to sotto voce warnings about the risks attached of them being seen to be at odds with their government on a particular issue and why it’s important for them not to be seen to be rocking the boat, if they want to be helpful towards securing a yes vote in 2014.
Often, such heavy handedness is deployed in response to the most innocently intentioned and devised questions of government policy, but needless to say, given that these MSPs do not want to do anything to jeopardise the potential success of the cause for which so many have spent their lives campaigning, they acquiesce. Many a vote is being taken in committee and chamber with misgivings. And given that there’s two years to go to the vote, it remains to be seen how far the politics and discipline of fear can carry before a major combustion results.
This is not how good government works. Nor is it the way to gain the trust of the people in what will be the biggest political decision of their lives.
If the SNP Government wants the people of Scotland to trust them enough to vote yes to independence, they need to rediscover the spring in their step of the earliest days of government and put an end to this creeping fog of paranoia, suppression, fear and nervousness.