Scotland politics

MSPs condemn government over freedom of information system

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MSPs have unanimously condemned the Scottish government's performance over freedom of information (FoI) requests and called for an independent inquiry.

SNP members supported a Conservative motion despite it including strong criticism of the government.

There has been a row over Scotland's freedom of information system after a group of journalists signed an open letter voicing concerns.

The government has pledged to publish all FoI responses in future.

Concerns were initially raised by journalists, who signed an open letter saying they were "increasingly concerned about the way in which the legislation is being interpreted and implemented".

Labour MSP Neil Findlay subsequently led members' business at Holyrood on the topic, calling for a "wholescale review" of practices, saying there was a "systematic avoidance of scrutiny and accountability from the highest level".

Independent inquiry

Conservative MSP Edward Mountain put forward a motion stating that parliament "condemns the Scottish government's poor performance in responding to freedom of information requests" and "calls for an independent inquiry into the way that it deals with these".

Government business manager Joe Fitzpatrick put forward an amendment accepting all of this wording, but adding a welcome for plans to publish all material released under FoI.

This meant SNP members ultimately voted in favour of a motion condemning their government.

Image caption Joe Fitzpatrick (left) accepted the motion put forward by Edward Mountain (left) despite it criticising the government

Mr Fitzpatrick insisted the Scottish government "believes in open government".

He said they accepted Mr Mountain's motion, saying: "We accept our recent performance has not been good enough, and we are working to improve it."

However, he also hit out at the UK government regime, saying it was a pity that the Westminster government was not taking steps over its performance.

Under questioning from Lib Dem Tavish Scott about whether special advisors screen requests for potential political damage, Mr Fitzpatrick initially said "no", but then added that advisors did check draft responses for accuracy.

'Garbage answers'

The minister also highlighted a spike in requests in recent years, which Labour's Neil Findlay suggested was due to "garbage parliamentary answers" forcing opposition members to resort to FoI.

Mr Mountain said the government's actions pointed to a "code of secrecy", and said: "The Scottish government has been disingenuous in dealing with FoIs, it knows it has and it can't hide it, and ministers must be more honest, transparent and accountable in future."

However, several SNP members backed Mr Fitzpatrick, with former Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead saying he was "staggered" as a minister by the resources involved in making information public.

Andy Wightman for the Greens said openness was "fundamental" to democracy, commending ministers for "holding their hands up" on the issue and for committing to publish all responses.

Mr Scott also credited Mr Fitzpatrick for accepting the wording of the motion, although he noted it was probably because the government knew they would lose the vote if they contested it.

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