Tuesday, 20 July 2010

MSP correspondence on it

[Jun 16. ]
Dear Mr Frank
Thank you for your email of 14 June, asking for clarification of what is meant by “The remaining 11 [responses] have not been published because they do not conform to our standards for publication”.

This refers to responses which contain wording that may potentially be harmful to others, or which might cause offence. Page 34 of the consultation document makes it clear that such material will not be published when it says that “We will check all responses where agreement to publish has been given for any wording that might be harmful to others before putting them in the [Scottish Government] library or on the [Scottish Government] website”.

I hope this is helpful.

Scottish Government Referendum Team

To the 3 SNP regional MSPs. [for Lothian. Jun 19.]

I took part in the National Conversation and the referendum bill consultation. I actually take an interest, and the numbers who did were less than you wished.

It is announced that 11 submissions have been withheld from the publicly accessible record on grounds of "any wording that might be harmful to others". But how do the public know how this has been decided? How did respondents know by what criteria content would be reckoned as "harmful to others"?

It is an unusually restricting form of words for a consultation to use. It makes for an appearance that the selection of responses to release may be partial. This devalues the whole exercise.

The consultation was not done by parliament, but if its findings feature in parliamentary business, e.g. in moves for the referendum, then certainty on how the responses have been filtered will most certainly be parliament's business and your opponents' business. Hence, the issue should be in order for petitioning on.

I put it to each of you, and to the SNP Government: that the submissions concerned should be released with blank-outs made where the items of concern are, and at the blanked-out points, the grounds for concern be stated. This is transparency.

Do you agree that it is common sense, that if this is done, then the respondent's answers to other questions, which do not contain any grounds for concern, will still be on the record? e.g. their response to the question on framing the referendum question on fruther devolution, may be unrepeated by any other respondent and may be a normal debating answer containing nothing of concern, while it is an answer to another question that has caused their entire submission to be suppressed.

Also, if an item is suppressed which has appeared in other public consultations without any "harmful to others" effects, then the respondent can invite interested parties to ask why.

e.g. A story about moving back to Scotland from growing up in exile, in the close pre-1997 period, and on your eighth day here getting lied to by the police that your new home is in a rough area, which later you can prove it is not. A paranoid bureaucrat may think: Must suppress this, too dangerous to write about the police lying. But if it is stated that the case was publicised in a letter to a local newspaper, without contest from the police, after it had been established through a police complaint that this wrong happened: then the consultation hosts know that it is legally safe to accept that story as content. Other consultations, e.g. directly on housing policy, have accepted it in publicly released submissions, and no legal horrors resulted for them.

Hence it is a matter of public interest and transparency of information, that the referendum consultation's hosts should be asked to specify how this content can be "harmful to others?" It is of relevant interest to the referendum's conduct, to flag up that the campaign should include content about how returners from the diaspora have been treated by the state, and that any independence movement that wants to be seen genuinely caring about ordinary people is bound to take committal positions on such events, and want them subjected to public scrutiny where the victim himself also wants that. This would justify a Yes vote, while cynical determination to remain noncommittal on it would justify a No vote.

[Jul 12] from Alex Salmond to Shirley-Anne Somerville.

Thank you for your letter of 22 June, enclosing correspondence from one of your constituents, Mr Maurice Frank, about the consultation on the draft Referendum (Scotland) Bill.

Mr Frank expressed his concerns about the decision not to publish 11 responses to the consultation on the grounds that some of the wording contained in them might have been deemd to be "harmful to others". I understand that Mr Frank raised this issue with officials in the Referendum Bill Team when he wrote to them on 14 June, querying the meaning of the phrase on the Scottish Government website that "11 [responses] have not been published because they do not conform to our standards for publication" My officials advised that this referred to responses which contain wording that may potentially be harmful to others, or which might cause offence. They also advised thatthe consultation document had indicated that the Scottish Government would withhold all or part of such responses by saying that it would "check all responses where agreement to publish has been given for any wording that might be harmful to others before putting them in the library or on the website. "

As Mr Frank may be aware, Scottish ministers are responsible for the contents of consultation responses published by them or otherwise made publicly available. It is therefore important that we do not seem to condone comments which we consider might cause offence or harm.

On reading the 11 responses, my officials concluded that each of them contained material that fell into that category. The extent and nature of the material varied between responses. My officials therefore concluded that all responses containing any such material should not be published, rather than simply redacting the relevant material. I do not think that Mr Frank's specific suggestion for dealing with this issue - that responses could have been released with such material blanked out, accompanied by an explanation of why - would have achieved the same end of preventing potentially harmful material from being published.

I can of course assure you and Mr Frank that the 11 responses will be taken into account in our analysis of all the responses to the consultation and in finalising the Bill.

I hope that this reply is helpful for you in replying to Mr Frank. I am of course happy for you to share this letter with him.

Alex Salmond

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