Lesley Scott believes Scottish ministers are not being open about Named Persons legislation
A year ago this week, in an effort to address the concerns raised by the UK Supreme Court over the Named Person scheme, education secretary John Swinney announced a three month period of “intense engagement” with practitioners, public agencies, third sector organisations and members of the public, including parents and children and young people, but not those opposed to the scheme.
I asked the Scottish ministers for the minutes of these meetings through a Freedom of Information request in January of this year. After initially failing to respond to the FOI within the statutory time period the ministers stated that they were withholding the information requested because it would be published within 12 weeks. However, what was eventually published turned out to be a series of meeting summaries, not detailed formal minutes.
Due to the disparity between the FOI request and what was published by the government I referred the matter to the Information commissioner who considered “whether any formal minutes of the meetings were taken and are held by the ministers.” The commissioner has now issued a decision notice on this matter which raises some questions particularly since the Scottish Government is a member of the open government partnership.
Scottish ministers told the commissioner that “there were no formal minutes taken at any of the information sharing discussions at any of the meetings held as part of the three month engagement process, regardless of whether the whole meeting was about the information sharing engagement or whether this was only one agenda item”.
These included meetings between officials and Ministers with the Scottish Association of Social Work, EIS, NHS chief executives, third sector organisations and Named Person service providers amongst others.
Yet, the government were definite in this respect: there are no formal minutes held by the ministers for any of the meetings, there are no formal minutes of the meetings held by any of the other host organisations; in short, no formal minutes were taken at any of the engagement meetings.
Meeting summaries omitted some negative comments and thereby altered the content
The discussions at these meetings were meant to inform and direct the amendments to the Named Person legislation before it was once again put before parliament, yet government did not think it necessary to formally record what these discussions were.
The commissioner notes that “some of the published summaries do make clear that discussion about information sharing was part of a wider meeting the ministers have made clear that any other discussions and decisions at the meetings were not recorded in any way.”
The commissioner comments that: “this may raise broader questions about the way in which the ministers record (or do not record) information about meetings in which they participate.”
Crucially, the commissioner “accepts that there was a deliberate decision to create meeting summaries instead of formal minutes for the meetings relating to the information sharing provisions of the Named Person policy”. The views of one person who participated in the “intense engagement” regarding the meeting summary are included in the commissioner’s decision.
In terms of what was covered, the key points are there but it does not accurately reflect the range of views expressed. Many of those there expressed concern about NP where they had not previously.
This situation is most unsettling. It is clear that a major government engagement programme was conducted without detailed records being kept of the responses. It is furthermore apparent that the “meeting summaries” omitted some negative comments and thereby altered the content of the only record towards the government position.
Of even greater concern is the scope of the meetings that are going unrecorded. It seems that vast amounts of government business is being done in secret.
Specifically, interactions with major charities, agencies and organisations - whom the public believe to be independent of government - are going unrecorded. What does this mean for transparency in government? What does it mean for the freedom of information? What does this mean for citizen oversight?
It is a very troubling matter indeed.
Lesley Scott is Scottish officer for the Tymes Trust