Scottish government anger as minister excluded from COBRA meeting

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The Scottish government have reacted with anger after a minister was prevented by the UK government from taking part in a meeting to discuss the escalating situation in Libya.

External affairs minister Fiona Hyslop had been invited to take part in the Cobra emergency meeting in order to discuss the plight of hundreds of UK workers trapped in the crisis hit north African country.

Many of the oil workers are from the north east of Scotland and Ms Hyslop was representing the Scottish government in the talks.  However it has now emerged that London refused to activate access as Ms Hyslop waited patiently with Scottish resilience officials to join the meeting chaired by Foreign Secretary William Hague.

When the Scottish officials contacted London to find out what was going on they were told that the Scottish representatives had been excluded for reasons of “national security and intelligence”.

The snub came to light at First Ministers Questions when SNP leader Alex Salmond brought it to the attention of the chamber in response to a question posed by LibDem MSP Jamie Stone who highlighted the plight of Scottish oil workers trapped in the Libyan desert.

Mr Stone had urged the First Minister to use “every means at his disposal” to help the trapped Scottish workers and said: “William Skinner, from Easter Ross, is alone, without communication, trapped in a flat in Tripoli, which as we know is a very dangerous place to be.”

Mr Salmond explained that he had hoped to be in a position to provide information on the Libyan situation but that his information was limited due to the Cobra exclusion.

He said: “Unfortunately, the United Kingdom government decided the Scottish government wouldn’t be allowed to participate in a Cobra meeting this morning.

“I regret that decision because we have a substantial interest and duty of care to Scottish oil workers in Libya, and as we’ve always done in Cobra meetings on whatever subject, we would have respected all confidences and gone into that meeting in as constructive a way as possible.”

Mr Salmond revealed that the UK foreign secretary had agreed to speak to him later that afternoon.

Whilst security is a reserved matter, the exclusion of Scottish government officials from the entire meeting will have done little to engender trust between Edinburgh and London.  There is also certain to be speculation over the nature of the secret talks.

Recently published documents revealed that the last UK Labour government were secretly trying to help Gadaffi’s regime in repatriating Abdelbaset Al Megrahi.  The documents also revealed that London was keen to negotiate with Gadaffi on matters of energy and anti-terrorism.

The UK Cabinet Office had invited the Scottish Government to join the Cobra meeting at 9.20am Thursday.  Ms Hyslop and her officials were waiting by the phone in time for the meeting which was scheduled at 10am, but the expected call failed to come through.

A spokesman for the First Minister said: “Resilience officials then called the Cabinet Office to be told that the Scottish Government could not have access to the meeting because the discussions related to national security, which is a reserved matter.”

LibDem Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore confirmed that Scotland Office officials, along with officials in other departments, are part of the Cobra process.

He added: “They have been actively engaged in that, feeding information to me and also from Scotland to the relevant officials so that the ministers at the pinnacle of the decision-making process, the Foreign Secretary in particular, are aware of all the different issues.”