Information

Civil servants working alone with Ministers: FOI Review

Information request and response under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002


Information requested

1. the number of occasions, since January 2010, that civil servants have been advised to not work alone with any Government Minister, and 
2. On any occasion in which this advice was given, can you provide the full circulation list of individuals that were notified about this advice being given.

In your request for a review, you expressed dissatisfaction with two aspects of our handling of your request, as follows:
a. the time taken to respond to your request
b. you consider that it is in the public interest that the information requested be available.

In addition, you asked us to clarify the response that we issued. I have addressed this request for clarification when considering part (b) of your review request.

Response

Having completed the review requested in your email of 23 June I have concluded that the original decision should be confirmed with modifications for the reasons set out below.

Part (a) – time taken to respond
I have carefully considered the time taken in order to respond to your request for information, and I would like to take this opportunity to apologise for the length of time taken to respond to your original request. I would also like to explain some of the factors that contributed to the time taken. 
As you will be aware, your request was received while the trial of the former First Minister, Alex Salmond, was ongoing. However, the main factor was the need for relevant searches to be undertaken by a number of individuals who, very shortly after receipt of your request of 16 March, were necessarily diverted away from their ususal roles in order to support the Scottish Government’s response to the COVID-19 emergency. The ability of individuals to undertake the appropriate searches continued to be constrained by their need to prioritise their focus on COVID 19 and this lead to the unusual and regrettable length of time taken to respond to your request.

Part (b) – availability of information requested
In this part of your request for review, you indicated that you considered that it would be in the public interest for the information requested to be available. As you will be aware, section 1(1) of FOISA provies that a person who requests information from a Scottish public authority which holds it is entitled to be given it by the authority. “Information” is information which is recorded in any form (section 73). Where an authority does not hold information that is requested, section 17(1) of FOISA requires the authority to give notice to the requester in writing that it does not hold it.

Accordingly, I have interpreted your dissatisfaction about the availability of the requested information as being about the way in which we have applied section 17(1) of FOISA in response to your request. I have carefully considered the searches that were undertaken to ascertain whether the Scottish Ministers held any of the information that you requested, and I have concluded that they were adequate and proportionate in order to establish what information was held. Accordingly, I have ascertained that the response to your original request was correct in giving you a formal notificatioin under section 17(1) of FOISA that the Scottish Government does not hold the information you had requested. I appreciate that you have indicated that in your view it would be in the public interest for this information to be available. While we recognise that
there may be some public interest in the information that you have sought, clearly we cannot provide information that we do not hold.

However, I have concluded that it would have been good practice to explain to you why we did not hold the information that you requested, and I apologise that we did not do so. Having undertaken adequate and proportionate searches relevant to your original request, we did not locate any recorded information indicating that any advice had been given to civil servants not to work alone with any Government Minister since January 2010. Consequently, we notified you that we did not hold the information that you had requested. We consider that this is in line with the Scottish Information Commissioner’s guidance on section 17 of FOISA (see in particular paragraph 42). Having further considered the Commissioner’s guidance, we now confirm (under the duty to provide advice and assistance in section 15 of FOISA) that no individuals were
provided with such advice.

About FOI

The Scottish Government is committed to publishing all information released in response to Freedom of Information requests. View all FOI responses at http://www.gov.scot/foi-responses.

Contact

Please quote the FOI reference
Central Enquiry Unit
Email: ceu@gov.scot
Phone: 0300 244 4000

The Scottish Government
St Andrews House
Regent Road
Edinburgh
EH1 3DG

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