Our very own cloak of secrecy

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Kenneth Roy

Among the pre-election promises of the new prime minister was a commitment to more transparency in public life. Mr Cameron made a useful start with the publication, straight off, of the salaries of many public officials who earn more than he does. It was a long list….

Kenneth Roy

Among the pre-election promises of the new prime minister was a commitment to more transparency in public life. Mr Cameron made a useful start with the publication, straight off, of the salaries of many public officials who earn more than he does. It was a long list.
     Simple, huh? The prime minister wishes to ‘remove the cloak of secrecy’ and, hey presto, it’s lifted. Well, a teeny bit of it – with the promise of much more to come. But there is a snag. The cloak is essentially a garment made and worn in England. Up here, we have our very own, tartan-fringed cloak of secrecy and it’s not for lifting. We know this because SR has been trying to tug away at it for months with limited success.
     Our ‘test case’ – I know this sounds a bit grand, but it’s exactly how we see it – is the refusal of NHS Shetland, along with six other health boards in Scotland, to publish complete annual accounts. The incompleteness is exposed in the remuneration report where details of salaries and/or pension costs of senior management are withheld at the senior managers’ insistence. Regular readers will know of the battle that ensued: a freedom of information request to the Shetland board, abruptly rejected; an appeal against this decision, ditto; and then recourse to the Scottish information commissioner.
     I have to pinch myself that our approach to Mr Dunion in his castle in St Andrews was – wait for this – on 21 January. We had not observed Burns night on 21 January. We were living through the deepest mid-winter in living memory. Gordon Brown was a power in the land. (Incidentally, does anyone know where he is these days?). The idea of a Con-Lib Dem coalition would have seemed absurd. Only geeks had heard of Nick Clegg, although it is true that SR once ran an occasional column entitled ‘Clegg Cuckoo Land’ inspired by the belief of the deputy prime minister (as he then wasn’t) that old age pensioners get ‘about 30 quid a week’. Britain had not yet finished last in the Eurovision Song Contest. Again. The volcano had still to erupt. There seemed to be a glittering future for Councillor Purcell. Bullet of Onthank was just another three-legged dog, not the national emblem he has recently become.
     Yes, the world was a very different place on 21 January.
     But for those of us here at the Scottish Review, time has stood still. 21 January was a Thursday. Nineteen more Thursdays have come and gone. Tomorrow a 20th Thursday will be sadly crossed off our calendar and still the Scottish Information Commissioner has not given us a decision in the case of NHS Shetland. How much longer must be wait? How long, oh Lord, how long?

I do not complain of lack of contact. I almost regard the freedom of information officer dealing with our case as a pen-pal. But, if you ever feel like appealing to the Scottish information commissioner, be warned that it is a very nice way of spending the rest of your life.
     To show you what I mean, here is a verbatim record of email correspondence since April (of course there was quite a bit before April):

12 April: from me
A rather strange thing has happened. All the figures I have been requesting from NHS Shetland, until now consistently refused, have suddenly been emailed to me by the board. There is no explanation. Is this related to the current FoI appeal or am I to assume that NHS Shetland has had an abrupt change of policy?
     Kind regards

Later that day: from them
I wrote to NHS Shetland around 2 weeks ago highlighting the guidance issued by the (UK) Information Commissioner’s Office regarding the release of information about public sector salaries, a copy of which can be obtained at the following link.
     I also asked the Board to provide me with submissions justifying its position having had the opportunity to examine the guidance document.
Earlier this morning I received a message from the Board indicating that it had now obtained consent from all of the individuals named in your request to release details of their salaries and pension costs to you. The Board indicated that it did not wish to spend any more time on this issue and had therefore decided to send the information to you. I am happy to hear that they have done so.
     You may now wish to consider whether you want to pursue your application to the Commissioner for a decision. Many applicants decide to withdraw their application when, during the course of an investigation, they obtain information previously withheld from them. In this case the Board has provided you with the information you requested and, had the application resulted in the Commissioner issuing a decision, you may not have received as much information. I cannot at this stage indicate what the final decision might have covered as the Board has chosen to release the information rather than submit a full rationale for their previous stance.
     I look forward to hearing from you in due course.
     Best regards.

Still later that day: from me
Many thanks for clarifying the situation. It would appear from what you say that NHS Shetland is not yielding on the principle of the issue of disclosure; it simply does not wish to spend any more time on it. In these circumstances I wish to pursue the application; I see it as something of a test case.
     I note from this morning’s press that the question of NHS management salaries looks likely to surface as an election issue, so the question of transparency remains highly relevant and topical.
     Thank you for sending me the link. I look forward to reading it. Thank you also for your help and advice throughout.
     Kind regards.

29 April: from me
Just wondering if any progress has been made in determining our appeal.
     Kind regards.

30 April: from them
I drafted the decision notice a little while ago and it is with my manager for approval. Unfortunately she was delayed overseas due to travel difficulties associated with the Icelandic volcanic ash and accordingly there is a bit of a backlog. I hope that the decision notice will be approved in the next few days. A copy will be sent to you as soon as it is signed off.
     Regards.

Nothing more was heard. The month of the general election passed without contact.

2 June: from me
Just wondering what has happened to the decision notice you said on 30 April was within days of being sent to me.
     Regards.

4 June: from them
Please accept my apologies for the delay in finalising and issuing the decision notice regarding your application to the Commissioner. Some delay had crept in to our processes for a variety of reasons over recent weeks and unfortunately the decision notice in your case has not yet been approved for release. I have consulted my manager and been informed that the decision notice should be issued this month, hopefully sooner rather than later. I am sorry that I cannot give you a more precise timescale.
     Best regards.

And so it goes on…and on. What are we to make of it all? Your guess is as good as mine. But if there is ever a sign of any cloak of secrecy being lifted north of Carlisle, you will (of course) be the first to know.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.