The Scottish Government has been criticised for allegedly attempting to influence parliamentary committee witnesses after documents revealed that the vast majority of people giving evidence on the proposed Named Person policy were contacted by officials.
Documents obtained by a freedom of information request reveal there were a number of telephone and email contacts made, as well as numerous meetings, between officials and people giving evidence to the Education and Skills Committee.
The documents confirm that – out of a total of 32 witnesses – government officials contacted all but seven of them.
One organisation giving evidence – speaking to The Ferret off the record – said it felt that officials were trying to influence its evidence although the Scottish Government insists that it was “entirely right and proper” for officials to engage with people.
The FOI disclosure has prompted cross-party criticism. Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson Iain Gray MSP said he was concerned over the “strong arm tactics” adopted by the government and described the actions of officials as “a blatant and systematic attempt to pressure committee witnesses.”
“Everyone, whatever their position on the Named Person policy should be outraged at a government indulging in such strong arm tactics to undermine parliamentary process,” he added.
The Named Person policy would see every young person in Scotland assigned a single point of contact – generally a teacher or health visitor – in case of any concerns over their well-being.
The government says that young people and parents would be able to approach the Named Person for advice and support, and that other professionals would be able to share information more effectively if they have concerns.
Critics of the scheme have claimed that it undermines the roles of families by handing too much power to the state.
Although many of these concerns were rejected by the Court of Session in Edinburgh, the Supreme Court later agreed that – although the goals of the scheme are “unquestionably legitimate and benign” – aspects of the data-sharing arrangements included in the plans were incompatible with sections of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Education Secretary John Swinney subsequently pledged to make changes to the new legislation.
The government has already come under pressure around its contact with those providing evidence regarding the Named Person scheme. But, the latest release shows the full scale of the government’s contact with committee witnesses, including the types of contact which took place and the dates on which meetings were held.
The only organisations not contacted by the government were the Law Society of Scotland, the Faculty of Advocates, the University of Edinburgh, Glasgow City Health and Social Care Partnership, Crossreach, the No to Named Person Campaign and Clan Childlaw.
It also confirms that – although notes of many of the meetings do exist – these are simply “Scottish Government summaries of the discussions Scottish Government officials heard at these meetings, not formal minutes agreed by those attending”.
Commenting for the Scottish Conservatives, Oliver Mundell MSP – who previously raised concerns over the government’s meetings with committee witnesses – said: “After ducking and diving under repeated parliamentary questioning, it is now a matter of public record that senior Scottish Government officials solicited meetings with organisations after they had submitted written evidence and before giving oral evidence.
“We can only assume Mr Swinney is in charge of the Bill team and that they were acting on his orders. Therefore his statement to the education committee, that detailed discussions on policy concessions only took place with organisations after they gave evidence, needs clarification.”
Ross Greer MSP, Education spokesperson for the Scottish Greens said that the Named Person Bill was “incredibly important” for the wellbeing of Scottish children.
But he also criticised the government’s “consistent mishandling” of the Bill.
“This process cannot be allowed to derail Named Person. Actions which only raise suspicions and make the role of the Education committee harder do nothing to move us towards actually passing the Information Sharing bill,” he said.
On January 24 2018, committee convenor James Dornan MSP wrote to John Swinney asking him to comment on the issue, after it first became clear that officials had been contacting people who had submitted written evidence to the committee.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “As is entirely right and proper, the Scottish Government engaged with stakeholders throughout the passage of the Information Sharing Bill and we will continue to do so in the development of supporting materials, such as the Code of Practice and guidance.
“This is to ensure that those affected by developing law and policy are well informed, their concerns are heard and that they can be involved and influence changes that will affect them.”