The rural economy secretary, Fergus Ewing, has been criticised for “an abdication of responsibility” and as “very un-ministerial” by a civil service trade union.
PCS, the union which represents 26,000 government and other officials in Scotland, has accused the minister of trying to avoid freedom of information (FoI) law by failing to ensure that 25 meetings with the fish farming industry were recorded.
The Scottish Government, however, insisted that it kept records in line with “all relevant records management legislation and practice”.
The Ferret reported on 1 June that Ewing had been accused by environmental campaigners of breaching the ministerial code. Over the last four years 21 meetings with seven salmon farming companies, and four with the industry’s umbrella body, have not been minuted.
According to the government’s agency, Marine Scotland, it was not “normal practice” to keep written records of meetings because those attending “do not consider it necessary”.
In response the Scottish Government pointed out that it was the responsibility of officials, not ministers, to arrange for meetings to be recorded. It said there had been “absolutely no breach whatsoever” of the ministerial code by Ewing.
Now PCS has attacked Ewing for trying to shift the blame onto his officials. “Civil servants are accountable to ministers and fulfil what ministers ask of them,” said the union’s national officer for Scotland, Cat Boyd.
She added: “It seems unlikely any minister would be unaware of whether a minute of a meeting was being taken or not. Failure to know and to ensure proper record-keeping may not constitute a breach of the ministerial code.
“But it does suggest at best a lack of awareness of what is going on and at worst a circumvention of the transparency required for FoI. Whichever, blaming the civil servants that work for you is an abdication of responsibility and very un-ministerial.”
The Scottish Information Commissioner, Daren Fitzhenry, declined to comment on whether the ministerial code had been breached. But he did stress the importance of keeping proper records.
“Although the powers given to me as commissioner do not extend to determining what information an authority should record, FoI can be used to discover what information an authority does, or does not, hold,” he told The Ferret.
“Sometimes confirmation that certain information, such as minutes of meetings, is not held is itself important information for the requester.”
Fitzhenry pointed out there was no blanket “duty to document” in Scotland, although the ministerial code did contain provisions on the recording of certain information.
“However, I have no powers in relation to the enforcement of the ministerial code and it would therefore be inappropriate for to comment on its application in any specific case,” he said.
He also highlighted a recent report on FoI from the Scottish Parliament’s post-legislative scrutiny committee. It backed the introduction of a “duty to record” information as long as it was enforceable.
Fitzhenry added: “If information is not documented then the freedom of information regime will be of no use to people, so public authorities need to record information if the FoI regime is to have utility.”
The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland expressed “exasperation” at the “void in accountability” that was emerging. “When the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act was passed in 2002 it was standard practice to take minutes of meetings, have agendas etc,” said the campaign’s convener, Carole Ewart.
“Why that practice has changed despite the layers of laws, codes and guidance remains a mystery. Whatever the motivation, the impact is the same and clearly FoI law needs to catch up and address bad practice.”
She added: “FoI law must also ensure civil servants maintain a duty to record regardless of how ministers prefer to conduct government business. We need to be ambitious for FoI rights so people know how government works and who can and does influence the decision making process.”
Ewing ‘undermining freedom of information’
Fish farm critics described Ewing as the industry’s greatest political ally. “No wonder the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation and the fish farm companies it represents are keen to speak to him privately,” said John Aitchison from the coastal community group, Friends of the Sound of Jura.
“We cannot help asking ourselves what they are all trying to hide. By choosing not to keep or disclose records of lobbying by these companies, Mr Ewing is undermining the freedom of information system in our country.”
The Scottish Government argued that it already provided more detailed information about ministerial activity, including meetings and domestic travel, than any previous administration. “We are fully committed to openness and transparency and ensuring appropriate records of government business are kept,” said a spokesperson.
“Scottish Government records are maintained in accordance with all relevant records management legislation and practice.”
The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation has previously said that it held regular meetings with a number of key stakeholders, including ministers and senior officials in both the UK and Scottish governments.
Photo thanks to the Scottish Government.