Collaboration, Not Competition

“Collaboration has no hierarchy. The Sun collaborates with soil to bring flowers on the earth.” – Amit Ray

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

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This week saw the annual launch of the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government – its stated aims for the next year in Parliament. Usually at this time I’d be taking you through a deep dive of the various policy announcements and what they might mean for Scotland. The truth is though there isn’t really all that much there to dive into. Most of the major programmes mentioned in it (such as the National Care Service or the Circular Economy) have already been announced and are underway and many of the truly new announcements simply aren’t all that exciting. Even I, policy-geek amongst policy-geeks, can’t bring myself to get too excited about the devolution of the Aggregates Levy – the tax paid on taking stones and soil to landfill. It was one of the taxes devolved to Scotland in the wake of Indyref, the Smith Commission and the eventual Scotland Act 2016. The others were Income Tax (significant, but already straining at the seams of what is possible under devolution), Air Passenger Duty (the devolution of which was scrapped because of a potential legal fight with the EU), the assignment of VAT revenues (the devolution of which was scrapped because no-one could work out how to actually do it) and now Aggregates Levy (which will finally be devolved seven years and two Holyrood Elections after the mandate to do so). According to GERS, it’s currently worth around £58 million per year which is almost 1/16 of the estimated margin of error in the calculation of Scotland’s overall tax revenue.

The only other really noteworthy item is that the Scottish Government has finally acceded to the campaign to bring in the kind of tourist tax that almost all of us will be familiar with if we’ve travelled anywhere in Europe. Back in August, I spoke to the National about this kind of tax and mentioned the possibility of using it to fund or subsidise public transport and that perhaps tourists could be granted a free travel pass when they arrive in return.

But let’s talk about the most important policy announcement in this year’s PfG – so important that someone decided to leak it to the press ahead of time. The Scottish Government has decided to bring in an emergency rent freeze – backdated to the day of the PfG, though the legislation still needs to pass through Parliament. At the time of writing, we don’t yet know many of the details of the freeze itself including whether or not the Government will subsidise landlords for implementing the freeze. The news report announcing the leak mentioned a source who said that if the cost of the freeze was met by landlords then it would cost the Government nothing – this certainly suggests that if the landlords don’t cover the freeze then the Government may look at giving them partial or full compensation in the way that Liz Truss may be about to do to energy companies. It’s difficult to say how much this could cost as the freeze may only be for a limited duration (say, till March 2023) and many landlords – particularly in the public sector – only raise rates anyway once per Financial Year in April and some private landlords either do the same or weren’t planning to raise rates anyway (will they claim otherwise now if they can expect “free” money from the Government for doing so?).

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No Freedom Without Information

“There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy.” – Joseph Pulitzer

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

(Since the original publication of this post, Ellen joined me on the Common Weal Policy Podcast to discuss the issues raised in more detail. You can listen to that show here.)

Common Weal has been at the forefront of Scottish democratic and governance reform since our inception – it’s one of the things that attracted me personally into the orbit of the organisation. One of our earliest campaign success stories was the creation of the Scottish lobbying register which, despite its many and still critical flaws, at least gives us some insight into who is talking to the Scottish Government and about what. Another area where we’ve been gaining ground is our ongoing campaign for better Scottish statistics – the Scottish Government has still not picked up our call for a dedicated Scottish Statistics Agency to fill gaps in data provision despite overwhelming support from SNP members three years ago.

Where these two areas intersect is how we, as citizens, gain access to data and information produced by the government which might be difficult to find or not published at all. You have a right called Freedom of Information which allows you to ask public bodies (including the government itself) about the information it holds on various topics. It can be a question such as how much has been spent on a project? Or how many times a Minister has met a specific person? Or anything else that isn’t routinely published or that the Government has good reason to not publish (perhaps due to national security concerns). There are, of course, caveats such as declining to publish information that would be difficult or expensive to obtain (perhaps the question was too broad or requires someone to trawl through a half-forgotten archive of paper records). All of this legislation is important. If we don’t know who is talking to government, what government is telling itself or what they’re not telling us then we cannot hold them to account for their actions. I’d go as far to say that an opaque government is inherently corrupt or, at least, cannot adequately demonstrate that it is not.

However, there are flaws in the current FOI legislation as well and we have been campaigning on reform to the legislation as well. In 2019 I took part in a very memorable meeting at the Scottish Parliament where we discussed various aspects of possible reform.

 These reforms include ending “corporate confidentiality” in public-private contracts after the contracts have been signed (so we know precisely how much we’re spending and on what – especially on large infrastructure projects), mandating that private companies in receipt of public money should be covered by FOI when they spend it (so that government can’t hide behind a wall of privatisation), and – most serious of all – that government should end its unlawful practice of treating FOI requests from some people differently from others (such as allowing Ministers to “review”, delay or block FOI requests submitted by journalists). One of our key recommendations was to address a fundamental flaw in the FOI process itself which is that in order to get information into the public domain, you first need to be able to ask a question about it.

To ask the question “For the minutes of the meeting between the Minister for Energy and Coal Billionaire Joe McSmoke in August 2019?”, you first need to have some kind of suspicion that such a meeting even took place and that there’s a possibility that it was minuted and that those minutes were recorded in a way that is publishable. Instead, we’ve called for public bodies to adopt what we’ve termed to be a “Glass Wall” approach whereby any information that would normally be disclosed by a properly submitted FOI should be proactively published in a browsable archive (we may still need to submit something similar to an FOI to the curator of said archive to be able find said information but the point is that you wouldn’t need to).

I’m glad to say that many of these suggestions were accepted by the Committee and, eventually, by the Government itself. It brought about an investigation by the Information Commissioner to ensure that the recommendations were being carried out (especially the ending of unlawful interference of FOI by ministers) and which published last week.

It was this report that led me to discovering another fundamental flaw in the FOI process that surprised me and also throws the entire system into serious doubt as to its ability to ensure transparent government.

Folk in Indy circles will no doubt be aware of the ongoing story about the UK Government’s “secret polling” into public attitudes on the Union. This polling was done in around 2018 (so is almost certainly out of date now) but was never publicly published. A court case recently concluded with an instruction to publish the data and the latest in this story is that the UK Government is still refusing to publish and may need to be challenged again.

However, there is a twist to this story. When this all kicked off last year my wife Ellen asked the obvious but unasked question – If the UK Government isn’t publishing its polling on attitudes towards independence, why couldn’t the Scottish Government publish its own internal polling on the topic? Even better, once both were published, we could compare and contrast the results of the various questions asked. Not being able to find that polling in any of the public databases, Ellen submitted an FOI for its release and, to both of our surprise, we were told that the reason that this data hadn’t be published before and couldn’t be published now was because the Scottish Government hadn’t conducted any public polling on attitudes in the time between January 2018 and July 2021 when the request was submitted.

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This could and should have been a major story last year and Ellen planned to send it around journalistic circles just as soon as a linkable version appeared on the Scottish Government FOI database.  Several days passed without it doing so. Then weeks. Then a couple of months. To this day, if you search for her FOI request it still returns no result.

The Information Commissioner’s report last week brought the topic back to the front of our mind and Ellen contacted the Commissioner to try to find out if there was a reason that this FOI would not be published. The prompt reply frankly shocked us. A private reply to an FOI is considered by the Scottish Government to be a fulfilment of FOI legislation and puts the information into the “public domain” but there is no obligation in the legislation for the reply to be entered into a public database. Doing so is merely considered “best practice”.

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Consider this for a moment. There is an obligation on the Scottish Government to respond to FOI requests but so long as they give the information to the person who asked the question, there is no obligation on them to let anyone else know about it. But, as it is now a public document, “leaking” it as I have done above isn’t even leaking – it’s just sharing a public document.

But this leads us to another question – how many FOI requests have been answered by private email and not shared more widely? I don’t think it’s a question anyone but the Scottish Government  can answer with certainty but there may be a way of taking at least a stab at it. Whenever you submit an FOI request, you are given a unique reference number. That number – as per Ellen’s FOI above – takes the form of the year of submission and then a string of numbers. That string of numbers appears to be not random but at least somewhat sequential. The earliest FOI in the database is FoI/16/00690 published on October 23rd 2017 and the most recent as of the time of writing – published on May 24th 2022 – is FOI/202200296591. As of the time of writing there are 8879 FOI replies in the database. I don’t know if the sequence of ID numbers includes documents other than FOIs (is document 202200296592 some other letter to or from a civil servant perhaps?) but I can’t imagine why it would. It may be that some of these FOIs have been sent to other public bodies (such as Local Authorities) and published in their own databases but – as said above – we have a clear example of at least one FOI to the Scottish Government that has not been published. Assuming each of these numbers does refer solely to a unique FOI request and its reply and the reference number is as sequential as it appears to be then that may suggest that in the worst case, less than 30% of FOI requests to the Scottish Government have been published in a public manner beyond a direct reply to the person who submitted the request. I dearly hope there’s an explanation out there that means that things aren’t as bad as that. If anyone has one, please do let me know.

I’d be really interested to hear your experiences with this. If you have submitted an FOI request and found that your reply is not on the database then let us know. I’m not sure what we can do from there. We could probably do more to train up volunteers to submit FOIs and have them share their replies with us but how can we do more than that? Does Common Weal have to publish these FOIs ourselves? Do we have to partner with some journalists to create a “Shadow Repository” of all of the FOIs the Government didn’t want you to see? Will just the threat of doing so force an explanation from the Government? Whether by actual legislation or, as a distant second, firm departmental commitments to actually follow “best practice” the Scottish Government should and must publish ALL FOI requests that it responds to. Even the “frivolous” ones. Even the “vexatious” ones. Even the “inconvenient” ones from journalists and especially even the ones that reveal that the Scottish Government hasn’t been doing work that it should have been doing as it prepares to fight another independence campaign. For their part, the Information Commissioner’s office confirmed to us that it is not within their remit to force FOI replies to be published again, because it is not a statutory requirement.

As I said at the top of this piece, I don’t think we can have a functioning democracy without transparency and accountability. Corruption is inevitable if power remains in the dark and behind closed doors. If only a select few have access to information, the same results. From a very practical standpoint, it’s also a complete waste of resources to have to blindly keep asking the same FOI questions because you didn’t know that someone else asked for the same information some time before you. In a very real sense there can be no freedom without freedom of information. The Scottish Government can and must ensure that all of us can see what it is doing at all times. If they don’t, we have to ask the final obvious, unasked question. What, precisely, are they hiding from us?

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How to Give Money to Everyone

“The conditional programs inherently use poverty as a threat. That’s Cruel. Shouldn’t we be ashamed of ourselves?” ― Karl Widerquist

The mounting crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing countries to adopt unprecedented measures to combat it. In addition to the public health measures such as physical distancing (not social distancing. At times like this we need MORE social solidarity) we’re also seeing unprecidented measures being deployed to salvage an economy that has practically ground to a halt. Unlike any economic recession since possibly the 1930s we’re seeing a combined demand and supply shock. The virus makes it hard to make and sell things and everyone is at home in quarantine so no-one is buying the things anyway.

This isn’t true of all sectors of course and a great deal of effort is being expended to keep essential services like food deliveries running. In addition to my friends working in the health service and my family working in the care sector, my hat goes absolutely off to my friends working in the food sector. When the day comes that we’re allowed to buy a round for each other again, they’ve all more than earned a few from me.

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We Need To Talk About: GERS (2018-19 Edition)

“Fact be virtuous, or vicious, as Fortune pleaseth” – Thomas Hobbes

It’s that time again! The annual GERS report has been released and interested parties continue to analyse, pick apart and spin the numbers as required. And my now annual tradition of diving into the numbers continues with another installment.

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You can read my coverage of GERS 2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18 behind those links.

You can read the report and download all of the data tables for this year’s report here.

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Nowhere Left To Grow

“Perhaps the answer is that it is necessary to slow down, finally giving up on economistic fanaticism and collectively rethink the true meaning of the word “wealth.” Wealth does not mean a person who owns a lot, but refers to someone who has enough time to enjoy what nature and human collaboration place within everyone’s reach.” – Franco Bifo Berardi

This weekend will see the SNP conference and the long awaited vote on whether or not to adopt the Sustainable Growth Commission’s report as the party’s main economic strategy for an independent Scotland. After almost a year of discussing this document, the party will have their final say on whether or not to adopt it as party policy.

I have written tens of thousands of words of critique, commentary and policy work on this topic. There will be more to come between the time that this blog is published and the vote on Saturday afternoon. Much of it has been centred around currency and the macroeconomic policies. Here, I’d like to look at things from a slightly different lens. How does the Growth Commission reflect upon Nicola Sturgeon’s plan to introduce a Scottish Green New Deal?

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We Need To Talk About: The Growth Commission Report

If this is a discussion document – It’s time to start discussing it.

The Growth Commission’s long-awaited report is finally out and will surely take some time to fully digest. It has been described as a discussion document and a starting point for the revitalised case for independence; not the final word on SNP policy or national trajectory.

In many ways, the report covers ground now very familiar to campaigners in the independence debate. We’re all now quite familiar with the deep and systemic flaws of the UK’s economic system especially its regional inequality which, quite frankly, is embarrassing when compared to neighbouring countries in Europe.

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(Source: Eurostat)

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An Unequal Kingdom

“A system of government as close to federalism as you can have in a nation where one part forms 85% of the population” – Gordon Brown, 2014

The “F-word” is rearing its head again in Scottish politics. Federalism. An idea sometimes presented as a “credible” alternative to Scottish independence and a way of granting Scotland greater autonomy over its own affairs whilst maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, it’s also an idea that is rarely presented in any greater detail than that previous sentence.

Both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have flirted with this idea throughout their history and have been doing so again recently. In an attempt to raise the level of debate about this subject, I have just co-authored my latest policy paper for Common Weal with long-time constitutional activist Isobel Lindsay which you can read here or by clicking the image below. Isobel also has an article in the Sunday Herald which you can read here.

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Scotland’s Data Desert

My latest policy paper for Common Weal – Scotland’s Data Desert – has just been published and can be read here or by clicking the image below. There has also been coverage of the report in The National here and here.

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As a region of the UK, Scotland is in many ways better served by data gathering and analysis than its counterparts. However, as Scotland takes greater control over domestic issues and as the constitutional debate continues to look towards a future in which Scotland takes full responsibility for its own affairs the question is raised as to whether even this level of data provision is adequate for current or future needs – especially in a world where data becomes ever more vital in the development and support of policy. Well served though Scotland may be as a region, as a country it remains a relative “data desert” compared to nearby independent countries.

Many times we’ve watched as politicians and activists have misused data in the public sphere. Sometimes this manifests as a simple misunderstanding of what the data actually says (As when people ask how much of Scotland’s trade leaves the UK via “English ports”). Sometimes though, it’ll be used to make a political point in ways that the data doesn’t really support (such as discussions which use GERS to project beyond what it actually says on Scotland’s finances). There have also been instances of policies being implemented on the basis of limited evidence or of policies being implemented and then left to run without any program in place to monitor their effectiveness.

My latest policy paper for Common Weal is the culmination of over a year of research into the gaps and limitations of data provision in Scotland and discussion with people within the data sectors and civil service in Scotland and the UK. As a political lobbying and research organisation, we are – like many others – dependent on access to data to be able to inform our work and many times we have hit barriers where key data couldn’t be released or simply did not exist.

A Scottish Statistics Agency could help address many of these issues by expanding, co-ordinating and codifying data gathering within Scotland.

An independent Scotland will certainly need its own data and statistics agency but this isn’t just an independence issue as it could be done right now in a devolved Scotland and there are compelling reasons to do so. As said, Scotland already goes above and beyond the UK’s data gathering in many areas but there is certainly room to grow further.

The SSA could well take the form of a monolithic, centralised agency – a bit like the UK’s ONS – in which most or all policy level data is gathered by or for them. It could equally take the form of a more decentralised system whereby a central body co-ordinates and issues targets and directives but the actual gathering could be done by specialised bodies, statisticians embedded within government departments and even by academics and think-tanks. If this model was employed then a system of “kitemarks” could be used to mark data which meets the stringent Code of Practice which would identify data as being good enough for policy-making.

This kitemark system is already used by the UK Statistics Agency (the governing body which regulates the ONS) but could be used to either reflect a Scotland which applies even higher standards than the UK or could be expanded to identify data from outside of government (such as academics and think tanks) which meet those standards. This could allow for greater prespectives to influence government but could also limit the misuse of data by third parties by setting a benchmark to meet.

Of course, this isn’t just a problem of gathering data. As said above, often the data is gathered but difficult to find, difficult to manipulate or cannot be easily combined with other data due to conflicts in their methodologies. Where data can be combined, it has been a reported problem that different groups may be doing the same processing independently. This increases the chance of errors creeping in and also, crucially, results in a lot of time wasted between those groups.

An SSA could therefore be charged with ensuring that policy data meets high standards of trust, transparency, usability and consistency. It could also be responsible for maintaining a central data portal – much like Eurostat or the Gapminder Project – which would allow access to as much data as possible but can do it in a way which makes that data easy to view whether the viewer is an interested member of the public or an expert researcher.

People will, of course, ask how much an SSA would cost and, in truth, the answer is difficult unless we know the precise model – it’s harder to count the budget of a decentralised model than a centralised one – but where Scotland’s proportional share of the UK’s spend on statistics may be around £15 million, other nearby countries like Denmark and Sweden spend several times this figure and create several hundred highly skilled jobs in the process. Even these sums are comparatively small in terms of national budgets but will surely pay for themselves in terms of better targeted, better monitored and, quite simply, better policies.


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