The Scottish Government must stop hiding behind Covid-19 and release details of ministerial meetings, the publication of which has been delayed for over six months, according to transparency campaigners.
Under the remit of the Scottish ministerial code the government is committed to publishing details of external ministerial engagements – including face-to-face meetings, phone and video calls and site visits – within three months.
However no information about ministerial engagements or details of travel and gifts received by ministers, usually made available simultaneously, has been published since December 2020. A note on the relevant web page reads: “Due to Covid-19 routine publishing may be slower than normal.”
However campaigners claim this “concerning” delay is “a worrying sign” for transparency. They argue that with pandemic-related restrictions largely lifted across Scotland using Covid-19 as an excuse for delaying publication “no longer stands up to scrutiny”. The publication delays are now longer than they were at any time during 2020.
Under the Lobbying (Scotland) Act 2016, which came into force in 2018, all face-to-face lobbying is regulated. This means all meetings with elected politicians and civil servants which constitute lobbying should be registered.
But as The Ferret revealed in our Who Runs Scotland investigation earlier this year, loopholes in the register mean hundreds of meetings in the public interest – including any which take place by phone or by video conference but with cameras turned off – do not need to be included on the official register under current rules.
Our detailed analysis of ministerial diaries then found that hundreds of meetings between Scottish ministers and multinationals, wealthy individuals and other influential organisations were left off the lobbying register in 2020.
They included meetings between ministers and companies awarded multi-million pound UK and Scottish contracts to supply the NHS in the run-up to Covid-19.
Research also showed Scottish Ministers had telephone meetings regularly with Scotland’s richest men – including billionaires Sir Ian Wood and Sir Tom Hunter – about a wide range of topics from business to Covid-19 and renewables.
It also highlighted the might of the energy sector, with leading fossil fuel companies chalking up dozens of meetings with then energy minister Paul Wheelhouse, which did not feature on the lobbying register.
Campaigners, who want to see the remit of the lobbying register widened, have argued that for this reason timely publication of ministerial meetings is essential and are concerned that delays in publication are so delayed.
Though only the name of the person or company – along with a few words in the subject line is included in the ministerial engagements information – campaigners claim it forms an essential part of the checks and balances on government, allowing scrutiny of its day-to-day business.
Meetings published ‘within weeks’
Susannah Fitzgerald, network coordinator at Transparency International UK, which has called on the Scottish Government to close loopholes in the lobbying register, said: “The public has a right to know what their elected representatives are discussing in their capacity as Ministers – and who they are discussing it with.
“With unaddressed loopholes in Scotland’s lobbying register, these omissions become even more concerning. While the pandemic may previously have explained publication delays, this excuse no longer stands up to scrutiny.”
Dr William Dinan, a researcher in political communication, including lobbying at Stirling University, agreed that the “timely release of information relating to ministerial engagements” was “very important”.
He added: “We have already seen disclosures around fast tracking of Covid-19 emergency contracts for those with privileged access to ministers in the UK government during the early phase of the pandemic, but much of this came to light too late for meaningful diligence to protect the public purse as well as public health.
“This illustrates why it is so important that there is prompt and timely scrutiny of ministerial engagements with outside interests. The pandemic can no longer be an excuse for the delayed publication of contacts.”
James Mackenzie, freelance campaigner and lobbyist, has previously called for all ministerial meetings to be minuted with these published “within weeks”. He said: “Publishing the list of ministerial engagements is the bare minimum, and letting that slip is a worrying sign.
“There’s no reason compiling that list can’t be done by staff working from home. The public has a right to know what work is carried out on our behalf.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “Ordinarily we routinely publish this information online. However during the Covid response it has been necessary to reprioritise staff resources to support the Covid recovery and our publication schedule has been delayed.
“We are working hard to address this and anticipate that transparency data publication schedules will return to normal in the course of the autumn.”
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