An MSP has likened getting Scottish government answers on HIE centralisation to “wrestling with jelly” after the Edinburgh administration failed to release details of its controversial plans.
Tavish Scott has called on the SNP administration to stop dodging the issue and come clean on its intentions to abolish the HIE board, which has been put forward as part of an enterprise and skills review.
It comes after the Liberal Democrats were denied a freedom of information request for copies of ministerial and official communications on plans for the enterprise agency.
The Scottish government says ministers will bring an updated statement to the parliament in the coming weeks.
Mr Scott said officials from the Holyrood administration failed to respond until nearly two months after the statutory deadline for responses. They argued the requested information failed the “public interest test”. The Lib Dems are now appealing this decision to the Scottish Information Commissioner.
The Lib Dems say their request for information was submitted on 28th November. It asked for all correspondence with HIE about the enterprise and skills review and HIE’s board – as well as minutes of all meetings where HIE’s board and the review were discussed.
The request also sought all correspondence between, or from, Scottish government ministers, or officials, about HIE’s board and the review in relation to HIE.
Officials excused the delay to “transitioning the review project team from phase one to phase two and the impact of the Christmas holiday period”. However, they confirmed that it took 20 working days for information to clear the “internal review and clearance procedures”.
Mr Scott says the Scottish government only released information with regards to the setting up of a skills and enterprise review group.
We already know no one proposed or supported the governments plans for a new overarching board. Now, with this latest failure to be transparent, the government evidently has more to hide. TAVISH SCOTT
The freedom of information request was rejected, with officials arguing the information sought failed the “public interest test” as the benefits of transparency and openness were “outweighed by the public interest in creating an environment which fosters collaborative engagement in the iterative development of rounded and robust policy positions.”
Mr Scott said: “The Scottish government should come clean on its arguments for changing HIE. It is right that parliament should know what ministers have discussed, with whom and why. This is a big decision with major consequences for economic and social development in the Highlands and Islands.
“People deserve to know what is being done by the government and why. Fighting and obstructing freedom of information requests are a sign of secrecy and obstruction. Not openness and transparency.
“Time and again, like wrestling with jelly, Liberal Democrats have questioned SNP ministers over their ill-judged proposals. We already know no one proposed or supported the governments plans for a new overarching board. Now, with this latest failure to be transparent, the government evidently has more to hide.
“It is the expressed will of parliament to retain the current powers of HIE. Ministers have no option but to respect that decision.”
The row over HIE has been rumbling on since last year, when it first emerged the Scottish government had planned the abolition of the HIE’s governing board in Edinburgh – a move which has sparked renewed fears Shetland could lose out through centralisation.
More recently, the SNP administration has refused to walk away from the proposals, despite suffering a parliamentary defeat at Holyrood.
The Scottish government says its aim is to give businesses, and individuals, the right access and support to national services. It says that will help to boost the economy through increased productivity, equality, wellbeing and sustainability.
The government insists that HIE will continue to be “locally-based, managed and directed” and said a strategic board would “enhance services for businesses”.
A statement to parliament is expected in the next few weeks.