Emails revealing that the Scottish Government and councils are working together to block the release of information on billions of pounds worth of Covid-19 grants have prompted calls for an independent investigation.
The Ferret requested information from every Scottish local authority, as well as business support agencies, on the grants and other subsidies paid out to help mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The responses to our freedom of information (FOI) requests have already revealed the staggering extent of the stimulus provided to organisations throughout the country.
They show that councils have distributed millions of pounds to local traders and charities in a bid to keep the Scottish economy functioning throughout the Covid-19 restrictions.
Already, we have found that hundreds of businesses and voluntary groups that have received cash, including orange lodges, scout groups, bowling clubs, churches, and even luxury golf courses owned by Lords.
But most Scottish councils have refused to publish information on the recipients of millions of pounds worth of grants – after receiving advice from the Scottish Government that requests for information should be refused.
Emails obtained by The Ferret show the Scottish Government has advised council officers on the precise legal exemptions they should quote when sending FOI refusal notices.
Scottish Government advice is apparently shared by email through COSLA – a body that is itself exempt from freedom of information laws.
They also show that officials from different councils consult with each other in order to coordinate responses to similar freedom of information requests.
Recently, Scottish Government handling of FOI rules has been under the spotlight from opposition politicians, civil society groups and the independent regulator – the Scottish Information Commissioner.
Earlier this year government ministers proposed completely suspending freedom of information rights as part of emergency Covid-19 legislation.
The public’s full rights to information were only restored after MSPs united across party lines at the Scottish Parliament to force the government to abandon the plans.
Neil Findlay MSP, a long-standing advocate for information rights, said: “Billions of pounds of taxpayers money is being spent on the Covid-19 crisis and the public are entitled to know what it is being spent on.
“The Scottish Government has an atrocious record on freedom of information and indeed some ministers like Jeane Freeman wanted to have it suspended.
“Now it appears they are directing and colluding with councils to keep information secret and politically vet FOI requests. This is appalling and I would expect the information commissioner to step in and address this without delay.”
The Scottish Conservatives’ local government spokesperson Annie Wells called for more transparency on business support grant spending, criticising what she described as the SNP “culture of secrecy.”
“Yet again, this highlights the SNP’s failures as a Government to be transparent and their complete lack of desire to be held responsible for their actions,” Wells said.
She pointed out that the Scottish Government has received “billions” of pounds in additional funding in order to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The public will be keen to know where that money has been spent and how it is supporting jobs and livelihoods,” Wells said, adding, “they must urgently clarify why they have tried to stop vital information in relation to Covid support being released.”
Scottish Greens media spokesperson Ross Greer described the bid to encourage local authorities not to publish grant information as a “significant escalation.”
He said: “At the start of the pandemic the Scottish Government implemented completely unnecessary restrictions on freedom of information rights. However, coordinating with councils to hold back information which is clearly in the public interest is a significant escalation.
“Different levels of government should not be colluding to keep the public in the dark. This flies in the face of the very purpose of freedom of information rights.”
Most of the freedom of information requests sent by The Ferret are currently at internal review stage with each local authority.
This means that the Scottish Information Commissioner has yet to formally consider whether the information should be released, as each council may yet decide to publish grant information at the review stage.
The ‘issues log’
Emails also show that COSLA officials maintain an “issues log” that is circulated among public bodies in Scotland.
This suggests that coordination of FoI responses across public bodies on some topics may now be a routine occurrence.
COSLA officials have refused to confirm what information is circulated on the “issues log,” how it is maintained, who it is sent to or how frequently it is sent out.
In an emailed response sent to The Ferret, a COSLA spokesperson said: “The issues log is not a special project, it is just part of our work related to on-going COVID business support.”
However, in England controversy has been growing about the activities of the Cabinet Office “clearing house” which appears to perform a similar function.
Westminster officials at the “clearing house” have been accused by critics of maintaining an “orwellian” “blacklist” that coordinates responses across Whitehall. It is claimed that this could allow requests from specific people, such as journalists or campaigners, to be blocked or treated differently.
openDemocracy has threatened to take court action on the issue after evidence emerged that suggested that the personal data of journalists was being shared between government bodies.
In Scotland, separate Scottish legislation on FoI sets the rules for public bodies. A spokesperson for the Scottish Information Commissioner declined to comment on the specific cases highlighted in this story.
But in a statement they said: “Freedom of information law does not prevent or prohibit a public authority from communicating with another body about a request for information.
“However, consultation should only be used to establish a third party’s opinion – it is for the authority that received the request, and not the third party, to determine whether the information should be disclosed.”
They also warned that: “Authorities should also take care to ensure that consultation does not breach data protection legislation.”
“If any inappropriate responses or inputs from third parties were identified during any investigation, this would be highlighted and addressed in our decision, and if we became aware of any sharing of advice that was inconsistent with FoI law or the Code of Practice, we may also consider taking other formal action including intervention action.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government does not advise other public authorities on how to respond to information requests.
“At the request of COSLA, Scottish Government officials provided text previously used to respond to grant-related FOIs, in good faith that this should not encroach on the responsibility or capacity of a Local Authority to make their own FOI decisions.”