Friday, 8 April 2011

Secret Salmond

The dogged Simon Johnson of The Telegraph reports today that the SNP's local income tax plans would cost homes 50% more than billed in order to patch over a funding shortfall of at least £400m.

It goes a long way to explaining why the Scottish Government, on the eve of the election, has suddenly rushed to court on a "point of principle" involving freedom of information and a secret memo on the tax. 

Namely, that civil service advice to ministers is so sacrosanct it should be exempt from FoI.

But as I report in The Herald today, this area was already explored in a previous court case.

Moreover, one of Salmond's own ministers successfully argued that ministerial advice should be released under FoI while an opposition MSP.

It all leaves the drive to withhold the memo - in defiance of an order for its release by the Scottish Information Commissioner - looking less tenable by the day.

Tom Gordon
ALEX Salmond is facing fresh questions about his decision to go to court to block the release of a secret memo about his local tax plans after it emerged Scotland’s top judge threw out a similar case in 2007, describing it as "ill-founded".
The First Minister, who has been ordered to release the memo in the public interest by Scotland’s Information Commissioner, last month launched an appeal at the Court of Session which ensured the document would stay under wraps until after polling day.
The move fuelled opposition claims that the memo, written by the Scottish Government’s chief economic adviser in January 2009, shows the SNP’s local income tax (LIT) is unworkable.
Salmond dropped the flagship policy just weeks after Dr Andrew Goudie’s report, but has vowed to revive it if re-elected First Minister.
The government has resisted release of the memo for two years following a freedom of information (FoI) request from the media.
Salmond argues the court action, which has already cost taxpayers £53,000, is needed to establish "a point of principle" on whether advice to ministers should be released under FoI.
He said last week: "If you release civil service advice to ministers you will never get honest advice. It just won’t happen. If defeated in Court of Session, it would concede a point of principle."
However in January 2007 three Court of Session judges rejected a similar case brought by ministers in the last Labour-led government.
Delivering the court’s opinion, the Lord President, Lord Hamilton, said the Information Commissioner had acted within the law when, after considering all the information on its merits, he ordered release of advice to ministers in an FoI case concerning the legal profession.
The judge rejected the government argument that a whole class of information, such as ministerial advice, could be automatically exempt from FoI regardless of content, saying: "The class argument is, in our view, ill-founded."

He noted: "In this field it may be necessary to distinguish between what is not in the public interest to disclose because to do so would impede the working of government and what would by its disclosure simply embarrass ministers and officials."

Salmond’s own housing minister, Alex Neil, also argued advice to Labour and LibDem ministers should be released under FoI while in opposition.
In 2006, Neil successfully appealed an FoI case about cash problems at Scottish Enterprise to the Information Commissioner, who reported: "Mr Neil rejected the idea that release... would substantially inhibit the free and frank provision of advice to ministers."
Labour leader Iain Gray said Salmond’s argument for not releasing the memo was now in tatters.
He said: "There is now no excuse to continue wasting taxpayers’ money on this cover up."
Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie added: "The SNP are going to extraordinary lengths to cover up the truth, contradicting themselves, and all at enormous cost to taxpayers."
An SNP spokesman said: "The fact that Labour and Lib Dem ministers appealed an FoI Commissioner’s decision to the Court of Session makes them guilty of total hypocrisy. This is not about local income tax... ministers appealed the Commissioner’s decision because they regarded it as out of line with FoI legislation."
The Government refused to comment on the 2007 court judgment.
It also refused to comment on accusations that it was needlessly going over old ground.
A spokesman said: "Ministers have appealed the Commissioner’s decision to the Court of Session as they consider that the decision is not in line with the provisions of Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. Every request for information must be considered on its own merits. Pending the Court’s consideration of the appeal it would be inappropriate to comment further."