Shame on the SNP for curtailing Freedom of Information
Writing: Rob Bazaral
Earlier in the week, Scotland was in the headlines when it was announced that its Covid-19 relief package would make it the first nation to allow significant delays to deadlines for responses to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests; ostensibly in an effort to ease the burden on public officials during the pandemic. While somewhat sensible in principle, as most agencies in the world are experiencing great delays as the world grinds to a standstill dealing with the pandemic, its necessity is questionable.
No other government has included these extensions in their relief packages, including Westminster. And while many aspects of government will obviously be hindered by the restrictions of the lockdown, the act of responding to requests for information does not seem like something that is particularly hard to accomplish under these guidelines. Especially as the government is being granted much more control and authority during the crisis it is arguably the most important time to respond to these requests. With police potentially overstepping their power in the name of promoting distancing and government agencies being investigated into their initial plans handling the epidemic, there certainly will be reason for people to be requesting FoI information during this crisis.
I was not the first to raise these points, in fact it seems every party besides the SNP had noted objections to the measures during debate over the bill -- bringing about a rare moment of unity between Labour, Conservatives, and LibDems. While the Greens were some of the first to vocally protest the FoI rollback, when it came to debate they rolled over and fell into place in order to preserve their fragile alliance with the SNP. This eventually forced a tie which presiding officer Ken MacIntosh broke by voting in favour of the rollback.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland’s convenor, Carol Ewart, specifically noted her disappointment in the Scottish Greens for allowing the proposal to go through. It certainly adds to the questionable nature of the Greens' purpose in Parliament, an issue I discussed in my last article for Rattlerood as well. That a party founded on the idea of grassroots efforts to stop corruption in government should allow this to occur, without even an amendment passed to limit the scope, solely to preserve an alliance is frankly embarrassing. There were 6 amendments proposed that would have made the measure more practical, such as reducing the delays and limiting the scope to less essential agencies, specifically those less involved in the Covid-19 pandemic. They all failed and Scotland will go on to be the first nation to restrict this fundamental right at a time where the government has more power than it has ever had for an undetermined period of time as the pandemic rages on.
While I don’t personally believe this rollback is the first step in Scotland transitioning to authoritarianism or that it’s even particularly draconian (they are just delays after all, they will eventually be answered) it is further proof that Scotland, and specifically the SNP, is heading in the wrong direction.
Part of the reason I admired Scotland and wanted to attend university here was because I admired the many socialist efforts it had undertaken. Even if its lack of full autonomy within the UK has limited the scope of these measures, I felt that Scotland had a true national spirit for welfare, progress, and treating its citizens well (or at least better than most western countries). While I don’t believe that this spirit is entirely gone, in the wake of failing to achieve independence and growing increasingly apart from the UK with Brexit and December’s election, I feel the SNP is trying to build an increasingly broad tent and straying away from these values just for power. And for what purpose? If the SNP really touts the values of the nation, why is it consistently supporting measures to restrict its citizens’ freedom?
However, even if this is a foreboding sign of what nations might do in response to Covid-19, It’s doubtful that Scotland has enough influence for this measure to set a global precedent. In the grand scheme of things, Westminster’s relief bill will be what other EU nations look at for comparison, and while another nation might use this Scottish bill as justification to do something similar, one cannot envision it inciting a wave of draconian measures. The actions of Hungary are much more concerning when viewing potential global responses than this Holyrood bill.
This measure in and of itself is concerning but not the end of times. Much more troubling than the implications of the rollback is the disappointing leadership shown by the SNP and the Greens. Passing this serves as yet another blunder in their reign as a majority coalition in Holyrood and seems evidence to me that both parties are morally unraveling. While there is no clear answer as to who could replace them, or even who could do a better job, it’s an unfortunate sign that Scotland seems to be giving up on being something of a model nation for progressives.
Image: Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary; via erkansaka.net