An edited and shortened version of this article was published on 7th February, 2017. The following article is the original, full text.
Secretive meetings between the Scottish Government and a controversial lobbying organisation have provoked calls for reform.
On 25 October last year John Swinney – the Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary – met with representatives of the Hometown Foundation, a group pressing the government to allow the creation of ‘autonomous schools’. Like Free Schools in England, these would be publicly funded but exempt from local authority control.
Freedom of Information requests – which allow the public to access important information held by the government and other public bodies – have revealed that no minutes were taken during the meeting in October last year, despite the conversation being directly relevant to the Scottish Government’s school governance review, which was still ongoing at the time. In an earlier letter to the Hometown Foundation, Swinney had also advised that ‘autonomous schools’ proposals were to be considered as part of his review of the Scottish education system.
Information released under FOI laws also revealed that Colin McAllister, John Swinney’s Head of Policy and Senior Special Adviser, held a further meeting with the Hometown Foundation on 21 November. Again, no minutes of the meeting exist.
A follow-up letter – also available thanks to FOI requests – from the Hometown Foundation to John Swinney suggests that their representative, Bill Nicol, was told by McAllister that no decision on ‘autonomous schools’ would be made before the conclusion of the government’s schools review.
The Scottish Government has been repeatedly criticised for its inconsistent approach to keeping records of important or controversial meetings.
In August 2016 it was revealed that a meeting between the government and an EU commissioner, which related to serious delays in payments to Scottish farmers, had not been minuted. Weeks later, it was reported that the failure to keep minutes of a meeting between John Swinney and fracking giant Ineos meant that details of their conversation could not be revealed to the public.
In 2015, the Scottish Government was forced to admit that an entire series of meetings which led to the introduction of standardised testing in schools had gone unminuted.
Carole Ewart, Convener of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, sharply criticised the failure to keep minutes of meetings and called for a review of the state of FOI in Scotland. She said:
“Access to information is a human right and the Scottish Government must ensure its actions pro-actively comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Proof of secret meetings with lobbyists provides further justification for the Scottish Parliament to undertake an inquiry into the operation of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act which was passed 15 years ago and became effective 12 years ago. The Parliament should also assess whether the investigatory powers of the Scottish Information Commissioner should be enhanced to prevent and punish those who would seek to adopt new practices which have the effect of reducing the effectiveness of the public’s right to know.
FOISA was supposed to stop, punish and prevent such actions.”
Scottish Labour MSP Neil Findlay, an outspoken critic of lobbying in the Scottish parliament, added:
“Once again the Scottish Government are caught out meeting lobbyists without recording what was discussed. It really does look like the Scottish Government are seeking ways to systematically evade FOI legislation by simply not recording information or writing minutes of potentially important meetings like this one, which sees lobbyists advocating free schools and minimising the role of local authorities in education, a direction of travel that concerningly Mr Swinney already knows too well.
It is also worrying that they think it is acceptable to consistently disregard the spirit of FOI and avoid sharing information with the public and in the process wilfully and regularly showing disdain for the founding principles of openness, transparency and accountability which the Scottish Parliament was built upon.”
When asked to explain details of the decision not to minute meetings with the Hometown Foundation the Scottish Government stated that they would be unable to respond in time and suggested submitting a Freedom of Information request.
A government spokesperson also said: “There is no requirement for minutes to be taken at all Scottish Government meetings, particularly at informal meetings. This is entirely in line with normal practice across the UK Civil Service.”