First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has always been adamant she has no desire to politicise the coronavirus pandemic.
Sure, the SNP may, during the recent election campaign, have circulated leaflets bearing the image of the lectern from which Sturgeon delivers her regular covid updates and, yes, the FM may have spent the last couple of weeks before polling day insisting only support for her party would guarantee strong experienced leadership during the recovery period but you must see, surely, that none of this was political.
Let us all simply agree that, when it comes to dealing with the coronavirus crisis, Sturgeon and her Government are doing a tip-top, rinky-dink job.
National Records of Scotland unlawfully blocked requests – under freedom of information legislation – to release details of how many people had died in each of the country’s care homes.
The publicly-funded body offered a range of pitiful excuses for its refusal to do its legal duty. It offered up some nonsense about “data protection sensitivities”, claimed the release of the information might harm the commercial interests of care home owners (doesn’t the heart just bleed?), and even suggested there was a risk to the health and safety of care home staff.
The information commissioner didn’t buy any of that rubbish and, finally, we know the truth about how many people died in each care facility in the country.
For all the SNP spin about the First Minister’s masterful leadership during the pandemic, the fact remains that it was on her watch that the NHS discharged covid-infected patients into care homes where the virus quickly spread, causing more than 3,000 deaths among residents.
So, the information commissioner was absolutely right when he stated there was a strong public interest in the release of the information NRS wished to conceal.
When the Freedom of Information Act came into force in 2005, we were promised a new era of openness. Public bodies, previously able to cover up their dealings behind a veil of secrecy, would have to provide information about the way they were run. For the first time, we would learn the truth about decision making.
But all of this only works if public bodies – including the Government – play by the rules of the act.
In recent years, there has been a troubling tendency for the Scottish Government to drag its heels over answering freedom of information requests. We have seen a culture emerge where ministers’ special advisers have been allowed to oversee requests, putting the protection of MSPs who might be embarrassed by the truth over the public’s right to know.
The NRS’s attempt to conceal details about deaths in care homes is part of a wider culture – which starts at the very top of government – of evasion when it comes to freedom of information.
Asked about this scandal on Friday, Sturgeon said there had been “no masking of the scale” of deaths in care homes. Nobody suggests this has happened but it was a useful straw man for a First Minister under pressure.
The NRS, she added, operated independently of ministers, she added.
But Scotland is a small country and the reaction by NRS to an awkward question about care home deaths is entirely in keeping with the current public sector culture.
It is certainly true that FOI is a useful tool for opposition parties. Before it came to power in 2007, the SNP regularly used freedom of information requests to generate damaging stories about Scotland’s Labour-Liberal Democrat administration.
But partisanship shouldn’t factor in our condemnation of a growing culture of secrecy which sees the freedom of information act defied by public bodies. When National Records of Scotland decided to withhold vital information about care home deaths, they prevented families from making fully informed choices about the safety of their elderly relatives.
Freedom of Information requests may bring forth information that embarrasses politicians and civil servants. Good. If that happens, the law is working.