Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]
Meeting date: Wednesday, November 15, 2023
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Scottish Ministerial Code (First Minister and Deputy First Minister), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month
- Portfolio Question Time
- Scottish Ministerial Code (First Minister and Deputy First Minister)
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month
Scottish Ministerial Code (First Minister and Deputy First Minister)
The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-011247, in the name of Douglas Ross, on an independent investigation into the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
I invite members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible.14:45
Truth is at the heart of the debate that we are having today, as are the efforts to get crucial answers for bereaved families who are looking to the Covid inquiries for informed responses, having considered all the information.
All of us here have a collective responsibility to stand up for the integrity of our Parliament. If the value of what is said in this chamber is put into question or—worse—found to be untrue, that diminishes our exchanges and makes our national debate poorer. What is said here does—and must—matter. Although we will and should always debate their content, the validity of our speeches and statements should be beyond question. We owe it to our constituents, who expect their representatives to conduct themselves with honesty. If the public cannot trust parliamentarians, that reflects badly not only on one individual party, but on us all.
That is why the question before us should be above the usual partisan considerations. This is not a battle of ideas or a debate on how we best govern our country; it is a simple consideration of the facts and the evidence—of what was said, and whether there was a deliberate attempt to mislead.
The ministerial code that was signed off by Humza Yousaf is clear. It states:
“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to the Parliament”.
On penalties, it says:
“Ministers who knowingly mislead the Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation”.
What should happen next if the ministerial code has been breached is not in question—it is already there in print. The motion that the Scottish Conservatives have lodged does not even make a final judgment on whether the chamber was misled by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, although I will certainly put forward the case for that later in my speech. All it calls for is an independent investigation into whether there has been a rule breach and why.
There should not be a single member in the chamber who cannot support the motion. I confirm that we will accept the Labour amendment, but of course we will have to reject the amendment proposed by the Scottish National Party. I think that people watching this meeting will find it incredible that the party of Government will not even allow an independent assessment of what the First Minister and Deputy First Minister told the Parliament. If the Government believes that there has been no breach of the code, why would it not allow an investigation to go ahead to confirm its side of events? I suspect that that is because it already knows what the findings would be, and they would not be favourable to Humza Yousaf or Shona Robison.
If the Government is unwilling to allow that investigation, I will set out the facts and allow members and the public to draw their own conclusions.
Does Douglas Ross agree that one of the Nolan principles is accountability, according to which public office holders should
“submit themselves to the scrutiny that is necessary to ensure this”?
I absolutely agree with the member, who chairs the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee in Parliament. Let us not forget that previous SNP Government ministers, including previous SNP First Ministers, have referred themselves to the independent adviser. I have to question why the current First Minister and Deputy First Minister are unwilling to do so.
In November last year, the United Kingdom Covid inquiry wrote to the SNP Government to ask:
“To what extent was there informal or private communication about significant decision-making? For example, were there WhatsApp groups (or other forms of group chats) which key decision-makers used”?
Then, in February this year, it asked for
“any communications relating to key decisions, including internal and external emails, text messages or WhatsApp messages (on Scottish Government and private or personal devices)”.
I will give way to any SNP member who can argue that that does not constitute a request for the messages—I will give way to any of them—but I see none. No SNP member is able to stand up in this Parliament and defend their Government’s argument that it had not been asked for the messages. That is because it was not a request for a summary or a minute of the decisions that were made but a request for the actual messages. The silence from the SNP members suggests that they know it.
Let us be clear: that request was made not only once in February, but again in March, July, August, September and October. Again, we are in a debate, so I will give way to any SNP representative who, having heard about all those requests, can claim that there was no requirement for the Government to hand over messages. I say that not just to SNP back benchers—I will give way to the Deputy First Minister if she would like to defend her case that that was not a request for messages. Again, I see nothing—not a single member is willing to do so.
We know that on each of those occasions, bar the last one, the messages were withheld. Jamie Dawson KC, the counsel to the inquiry, said this three weeks ago:
“The Scottish Government has provided the inquiry with no WhatsApp or other informal messaging material, either in its own possession or in the possession of”
We have a situation where nine months ago, the Scottish Government was asked for WhatsApp messages to be provided to the inquiry, but they were handed over only last week. On 31 October, though, the Deputy First Minister said:
“In June this year, the inquiry came back to ask for groups of WhatsApp messages—the titles of those groups and who the members of the groups were—and then in September the inquiry asked for the individual messages”,
refusing to mention the fact that the inquiry had made similar requests in February, March, July and August. Shona Robison also went further. In response to my questions in the chamber on 31 October, she said:
“it is not correct to say that it has been a year since that request was made; it has been just over a month.”—[Official Report, 31 October 2023; c 66.]
That is not the truth. The evidence that was supplied by the Deputy First Minister in the Scottish Government-initiated question on 8 November contradicts that. Let us not forget that that evidence was supplied only by the SNP Government, because it was forced to do so by the UK Covid inquiry. The Scottish Government was all too happy to spin a different tale on timings until the inquiry called it out.
The First Minister was even more definitive in his framing of the requests. On 2 November, he said
“It is crucial to say that, when the UK Government inquiry asked us in June for details of the various WhatsApp groups concerning Covid 19, it did not request the messages themselves. The messages were asked for in September, just a matter of weeks ago.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2023; c 17.]
Again, that is not true—that is a false statement from the First Minister to this Parliament. Details of the WhatsApp groups were asked for a year ago—not five months ago, as Humza Yousaf claimed—and it was for nine months, not a matter of weeks, that the SNP Government left request after request for those messages outstanding. When I raised that with the First Minister last week, he said that the Government had interpreted the requests “too narrowly”. Too narrowly? It did not consider the requests at all. It ignored them time after time.
Two weeks ago, not a single WhatsApp message had been transferred from the Scottish Government to the Covid inquiry. The Scottish Parliament has been told contradictory stories about key messages that the Scottish National Party Government should have provided to the UK Covid inquiry and when that crucial information was requested.
Humza Yousaf and Shona Robison should be ashamed of their blatant attempt to deceive grieving families who lost loved ones during the Covid pandemic. They chose spin and secrecy over transparency and truth. How can we draw any other conclusion than that they have not been honest, have misled Parliament and have broken the ministerial code?
Would Douglas Ross agree that, because what is at stake here is the context of key decisions that were made in Government at a time of crisis, the failure to understand that context will mean that we cannot learn the lessons that we so badly need to learn for future crises?
Douglas Ross, I can give you the time back.
I absolutely agree with Daniel Johnson, and I will say this, repeatedly: it is not up to the Scottish Government and SNP ministers to say what is relevant or not for the Covid inquiry. We need to get full answers and full transparency, so they have to hand over absolutely everything.
Let us be clear: the most senior SNP members are still dodging scrutiny by refusing to launch an independent investigation, as per their amendment today. On 26 October, the First Minister promised me in the chamber that the Government would “fully investigate” why those messages had not been transferred, and that the Solicitor General had been tasked to lead that investigation. However, that is the last that Parliament has heard of it.
In the interests of transparency and openness, will the Deputy First Minister update us today on the status of that investigation and on the one launched by the permanent secretary? If not, I expect that many will assume that that is because it would again reinforce that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have not told the truth; that the request for meetings dates from February rather than from September, as they claim; and that, as a result, both Humza Yousaf and Shona Robison have deliberately misled this Parliament.
Mr Ross, I think that you are well aware of standing orders in relation to accusations that members have deliberately misled this Parliament. I give a warning that we should be steering clear of that, and I say that not just in relation to you but to the chamber as a whole, through the context of this debate.
I am grateful, Deputy Presiding Officer, and I will be careful.
However, I believe that this was deliberate, because those statements were not a simple slip of the tongue. They were the product of a concerted effort to confuse and muddle the timeline to make it seem as though the SNP Government was not dragging its heels in getting evidence to the inquiry.
As I have shown, the facts are clear. There can be no doubt that the ministerial code was broken and that the information given by Humza Yousaf and Shona Robison on the timing and scope of requests from the UK Covid inquiry was false.
However, there is a due process that can be followed, and I urge Parliament to vote for our motion to launch an independent investigation. If the Government does not believe that there has been a breach of the code, why would it not want that to be investigated? The UK Covid inquiry exists to give bereaved families the answers that they deserve on the motivations for the decisions taken during the pandemic. They should be given all of the information that they need to find those answers—they should not have to call out the two most senior SNP members to do so.
If members in this Parliament do not stand up for honesty in this chamber, this Government will always feel able to keep us and our constituents in the dark. It is past time that members of all parties stood up for the truth in the Parliament in which they serve.
That the Parliament agrees that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister should refer themselves to the independent adviser on the Scottish Ministerial Code for a potential breach of paragraph 1.3(c) of that code, which requires ministers to give “accurate and truthful information to the Parliament”, on account of their statements misleading the Parliament on 31 October 2023 and 2 November 2023, relating to the date of requests for information from the UK COVID-19 Inquiry.14:58
I hope to set out today why I reject not only the motion but its premise. I start by repeating the First Minister’s acknowledgement last week that, in hindsight, we recognise that the Scottish Government interpreted the earlier requests for messages from the UK inquiry in a way that was too narrow. As the First Minister did last week, I offer my unreserved apology to families who have been bereaved by Covid for any distress that our actions, as a result of that interpretation, have caused them.
I keep hearing the Government use the excuse that it interpreted the requirements of the UK Covid inquiry too narrowly. I do not understand that. Many of us served in the Parliament at the time of the Covid emergency. We all knew that the inquiry was coming, and the Government consistently insisted that it would fall over itself to provide messages and evidence to the inquiry, yet this is the interpretation that we have.
Let me go into some of the detail on that in response to Alex Cole-Hamilton. In my statement of 31 October, and in answers to questions, I acknowledged that there had been initial requests for messages from the UK inquiry. The Scottish Government’s interpretation of requests from the inquiry at the time was that they related in the main to decision making.
As we have already set out, the Scottish Government did not, and does not, routinely make decisions via messaging services such as WhatsApp. Subsequently, and in line with the inquiry’s request, we have provided a far wider scope of almost 28,000 messages to the inquiry, to go along with the thousands of documents that had already been shared. We are committed to full co-operation with the Scottish and UK inquiries, and the reason for that is simple. As others have said, learning lessons from the pandemic is vital to prepare for the future.
I struggle to understand why the Government misinterpreted the request and interpreted it so narrowly. The point of an inquiry is surely to understand why decisions were made, so the context of decisions is critical. Therefore, those messages were of course relevant to the inquiry, so why did the Government make that decision? Why did it interpret the request too narrowly?
The focus was on decision making and providing the record of decision making. The subsequent request from the inquiry was for the broader range of context that Daniel Johnson refers to. That is what I set out in my statement with regard to the various stages, including the request for information on the WhatsApp groups and the messages in those groups. That is why the timeline that was put in through the Government-initiated question was important to set all that out in detail.
I will not stand here and say that lessons do not need to be learned from all the handling of these matters, from the response to the initial inquiries to any other issues, because the last thing that I or the Scottish Government want is to upset any of the bereaved families. That is absolutely not the intention, and I would regret that being the case.
Can Shona Robison confirm when she, as a current member of the Government and a member of the previous Government, was made aware of the request in February for the full messages? When was she personally made aware of that request?
When I was making the preparations for the statement, the advice to me was very clear that the Scottish Government’s interpretation of those early requests was for information on decision making, and my statement was made on that basis. What the First Minister and I have said since then is an acknowledgement that, looking back at those requests, we can see that the inquiry has a point, which is why the GIQ put the information of the full timeline—all the information that was asked for—into the public domain.
I turn to the legal advice, because the Labour amendment to the motion makes reference to the legal advice that was provided to the Scottish Government during the pandemic. The Scottish ministerial code explicitly states that Scottish ministers
“may acknowledge publicly that they have received legal advice on a particular topic, but must not divulge either who provided the advice or its contents (whether it is from the Law Officers or from anyone else).”
That is a long-standing convention of respecting the legal professional privilege of legal advice provided to the Government, which is a privilege that I understand that Governments elsewhere in these islands also follow. The code also sets out that
“Where, in exceptional circumstances, Ministers come to the view that the balance of public interest lies in disclosing either the source or the contents of legal advice on a particular matter, the Law Officers must then be consulted and their prior consent obtained before any disclosure takes place. Such consent will only be granted where there are compelling reasons for disclosure in the particular circumstances.”
It is the view of ministers that disclosure to the inquiries fits with a commitment towards transparency. As a result, Scottish Government officials have sought an agreement with the inquiries, giving them full access to unredacted material that is legally privileged. We will seek to ensure that the inquiries are able to disclose that material if they consider it necessary to do so, subject to any overriding contrary public interest. Our overall commitment will be to full transparency. [Interruption.]
The First Minister has set out to members—
Will the member give way?
How can the Government be fully transparent if WhatsApp messages were manually deleted by key players during the Covid-19 inquiry?
I can give you the time back, Deputy First Minister.
I dealt in my statement, at length, with the record management policy of the Government, which is that decision making, whether on WhatsApp or anything else, should be transcribed to the official record. That is set out very clearly in the record management policy and remains the same.
I was talking about the legal advice, and I want to conclude the point. As I said earlier, it is the view of ministers that disclosure to the inquiries fits with a commitment towards transparency. I hope that that will be welcomed.
The First Minister has already set out to members that a decision by Scottish Government officials to seek redactions would only be in exceptional circumstances where they had a legal responsibility to do so. I stress that they would also be required to advise the inquiries of their reasons for doing so.
I confirm to members that we are close to an agreement with the Scottish inquiry and that we are in on-going discussions with the UK inquiry.
Will the member give way on that point?
I do not have time. I am sorry; I need to make progress.
Further to my previous statement, and in line with a request from the UK inquiry, I provided the Parliament—as I said earlier—with an extensive timeline of the requests from the inquiry through a Government-initiated question answer last week. The GIQ answer provides a full timeline of the requests to the Scottish Government and how we have complied with the requests.
The Scottish Government has worked, and will continue to work, to provide the UK Covid inquiry with the material that it requests. In total, more than 19,000 documents have been provided to the UK inquiry.
Will the member take an intervention on that point?
I do not have time.
In relation to messages that have been collated by the Scottish Government, we sought and received from the UK inquiry a section 21 notice to ensure that we could process lawfully personal information that is contained in the messages. With that legal basis in place, we have transferred to the inquiry more than 14,000 group messages and a further 14,000 messages that were sent between individuals. That takes the total number of messages that have been shared with the inquiry to almost 28,000. I should clarify that I have not seen the messages that have been transferred to the inquiry, but I am advised that they include messages from current and former ministers and civil servants.
There will, of course, be material and messages that will have been provided by individual witnesses who have received rule 9 requests. However, to be clear, ministers do not have access to the responses of individuals. Those are, rightly, matters between those individuals and the inquiry.
With your indulgence, Deputy Presiding Officer, I have a few comments to make on record retention.
I can give you a bit more time, Deputy First Minister.
I want to highlight the information that I provided in my 31 October statement to the chamber regarding the handling and retention of records, including, but not limited to, informal communications by the Scottish Government.
The Scottish Government’s duty to create and retain records has remained consistent throughout the period that the inquiries are looking at, and we have complied with that duty. The Scottish Government actively submits to records management review processes with the keeper of the records to ensure that our approach is compliant with the law.
A detailed record and evidence of key decisions that were taken during the pandemic have been maintained by the Scottish Government. Our policies fully comply with our legislative obligations under the Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011 and other legal obligations, which is why we have had such a volume of material to share with the inquiry.
The Scottish Government’s records management policy makes plain that there must be transcription and storing of salient information from informal communications, such as evidence of decision making, to the centralised record system. The records management policy continues to apply to all records. The guidance has always been clear that, regardless of the platform or of new and emerging technologies, information that is relevant to the corporate record must be saved. Those practices for good records management are ones that we will continue to promote at every level within Government. They are kept under review to ensure that they remain fit for purpose.
Since the introduction of those policies, the Government has been asked to ensure the retention of any and all material that might have relevance to the work of the inquiries. The permanent secretary and the First Minister have been clear within the Scottish Government that those requests must be adhered to.
Will the Deputy First Minister take a brief intervention on that point?
The Deputy First Minister is just concluding.
I am sure that the Minister for Parliamentary Business will be able to address Ms Baillie’s point in his closing speech.
I underline our commitment to do all that we can to ensure that the important work of both inquiries can proceed at pace. That is in all our interests, and we owe nothing less not only to the people who lost their lives or their loved ones in the pandemic but to all those who have been affected, including many public sector workers who pulled together during that difficult time and whose work made it possible for our society to return to the normality that we all enjoy.
I move amendment S6M-11247.2, to leave out from “refer themselves” to end and insert:
“continue to ensure that the Scottish Government responds fully to requests for information from the UK COVID-19 Inquiry and from the Scottish COVID-19 Inquiry; recognises that information has been provided to the Parliament in the contributions from the Deputy First Minister and First Minister on 31 October 2023 and 2 November 2023, and through written answers; notes that the Scottish Government has taken action to transfer messages to the UK COVID-19 Inquiry in compliance with its requests, and further notes that the Scottish Government has offered an apology to families that have lost loves ones to, or been impacted by, COVID-19 for any distress that has been caused.”
I remind anyone who has not yet pressed their request-to-speak button but intends to speak in the debate to do so as soon as possible.15:10
It is important that we start by acknowledging why the issue matters so much. It is not just because it speaks to an SNP Government that has lost control, and nor is it just because the story is another example of the secrecy and cover-up that have tainted the SNP’s approach to many of the scandals that are rocking the Government, from ferries to public safety and the state of our NHS. It is both of those things but, most important, it is about the SNP Government being held accountable for its decisions and conduct during the most tragic event in living memory.
During the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic in Scotland, thousands of our fellow citizens died. Young people’s education was disrupted at levels that we had never seen before and with consequences that we still do not fully understand.
Untested and Covid-positive patients were sent into care homes with devastating consequences. People were shut away from seeing friends and family. People fell sick and were left to die alone. Their families mourned alone. That is why every ministerial decision and the conversation that informed it weigh so heavily not just on the politicians who made it but on the homes of every single family across Scotland. That is why the issue matters.
Across Scotland, people deserve the truth about how those life and death decisions were made. That is about not only learning the lessons for the future but delivering clarity and, I hope, some closure for many people who are living with heartache across our country. The least that Scots could have expected was that their Government would make getting the truth as easy as possible. However, that has clearly not been the case and it is not the strategy that the SNP Government has adopted.
Despite claims from Humza Yousaf as far back as May that the Scottish Government should be, in his words, “absolutely open and transparent”, we have seen attempts to withhold vital evidence from the inquiry, all while changing the excuse every time the story fell apart. In June, I asked directly:
“Will the First Minister confirm that all ministers and officials, past and present, have complied with the do not destroy instruction? Will he give a guarantee that all requested emails, texts and WhatsApp messages will be handed over in full to the inquiry?”
He gave a direct and simple answer. He said:
“Yes, they will.”
There was no equivocation, there were no caveats and there was no grey area. He went on to say:
“to ensure that there is simply no doubt whatsoever, any material that is asked for—WhatsApp messages, emails, Signal messages, Telegram messages or whatever—will absolutely be handed over to the Covid inquiries and handed over to them in full.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2023; c 15.]
Those were his words. His response was either hubris, naivety, incompetence or all three. Regardless, it is clear that it must be referred for an investigation into misleading the Parliament.
From what Anas Sarwar has explained, the matter is serious. Does he agree that it would be more relevant for the First Minister to be in the chamber to listen to the arguments that are being made?
Yes. In ideal circumstances, I think that the First Minister should be here. I can only hope that he listens to this debate or at least reads the transcript of it. I know from the past two weeks that he certainly had not read the transcript of the Covid inquiry, but perhaps he will take the time to read the transcript of this debate.
In June, the First Minister told the Parliament that the Government had
“a long-standing policy on retention ... including email and social media messages.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2023; c 16.]
Then it transpired that Nicola Sturgeon and Jason Leitch had deleted the WhatsApp messages. The First Minister changed his story and told the media that the Government had
“a social media messaging policy which actually required us to routinely delete WhatsApp messages.”
The Deputy First Minister told Parliament that 14,000 WhatsApp messages would be handed over to the inquiry, and then suddenly the First Minister, having told the inquiry that he did not have WhatsApp messages, miraculously found an old phone with his messages from the time and said that he would hand them over to the inquiry. What I do not understand is whether he misled the inquiry and is now clarifying or whether he broke the guidance that he said the Government had, which required the deletion of WhatsApp messages. Was he breaking his own policy? There is an utter loss of control and utter confusion.
Will the member give way?
I will give way. I hope that we get some clarity from the Deputy First Minister.
I have been very clear in my statement and in what I have said today. The requirement around messages, whether they are in WhatsApp or anything else, is to transcribe any decision making into the corporate record. Surely Anas Sarwar understands that no organisation can keep every single message about every single thing. Doing so would not comply with the law. The requirement is for messages that contain important, salient information to be transcribed to the corporate record, but they should not be retained forever, because that would be a breach of the legal obligations of the organisation.
I can give you the time back for the intervention, Mr Sarwar.
That is an even more confusing answer. What the Deputy First Minister is saying is that the First Minister has breached the Government’s guidance. He is saying that he has kept all his messages and will hand them over, but somehow the guidance is that messages have to be deleted. It is complete and utter chaos.
To put the matter in context, I note that the Government supplied 14,000 messages, but Matt Hancock alone—one person, as opposed to 70 officials and ministers—handed over 100,000 messages to the Covid inquiry. That compares with 14,000 messages—
Will the member give way on that point?
I am aware of the time, Deputy Presiding Officer, but I will take the intervention if I will get the time back.
I can give you the time back.
Just to be clear again, today, I have updated Parliament that there are 28,000 messages that have been transferred to the inquiry, but, in addition to that, there will be the individual responses to the inquiry. I have not seen them, but, no doubt, they will contain WhatsApp messages and other elements of material as well. [Interruption.]
Let us listen to members when they are speaking.
I am sure that the Deputy First Minister’s brain fog will have sounded like clarity to her, but it does not sound like clarity to anyone who is watching.
What remains unclear is when the First Minister told the inquiry that he did not have messages. Was it before or after having committed, in June, to supplying all the messages in full? Perhaps time will tell on that.
However, that is not all. Three weeks ago, counsel to the UK inquiry stated that it had asked the Scottish Government for copies of informal messages such as WhatsApps in February. On 31 October, the Deputy First Minister told Parliament that the UK inquiry first asked for messages in September, and the First Minister repeated that claim on 2 November. He said:
“The messages were asked for in September, just a matter of weeks ago.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2023; c 17.]
Both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister directly contradicted the counsel to the inquiry’s statement on 26 October. It was only after being forced by the UK inquiry that the Deputy First Minister sought to correct the record.
If that was the extent of the falsehoods, it would still be an open and shut case, in my view, in terms of that investigation on misleading Parliament. However, the reality is that it goes further. The true scale of the cover-up that many fear is taking place is still unclear, because this SNP Government has repeatedly refused to answer even some of the most basic questions. The inquiry has made it clear that there is no issue of confidentiality with some of the basic questions and answers. That is just another false excuse from this Government.
The First Minister has still failed to tell Parliament how many of the 70 ministers and officials have failed to comply with the “Do not destroy” notice and how many have deleted messages. There is still no answer on that. Why did the Scottish Government hand over redacted legal advice to the inquiry when it provided legal advice in full to other judicial inquiries in the past? Still no answer. We have now had a clarification that unredacted legal advice will be supplied, but the question remains: why did the UK Covid inquiry have to fight with the Government to get legal advice that it is entitled to? Why did the Government have to be shamed in the Parliament before it did what it has done for every single judicial inquiry in the past?
It has also been reported that SNP ministers and special advisers use SNP and private e-mail accounts to communicate. I ask again: how many e-mails from SNP accounts have been handed to the inquiry? If it is none, why is that?
The counsel to the UK inquiry has said that, if the information that the Government has now provided is insufficient, the inquiry will want to know why—but so, too, will this Parliament. The First Minister has lost control of his Government and, in my view, he requires to be referred for an investigation into misleading the Parliament and trying to cover that up. We were promised full transparency and co-operation with the inquiry, but the Government has failed. As much as the Government tries to hide and hope that it all just goes away, for the sake of the families, it must and will be held to account.
I move amendment S6M-11247.1, to insert at end:
“; considers that there should be binding sanctions for ministers who breach the Scottish Ministerial Code, and calls on the Scottish Government to provide a date by which the requested legal advice will be made available, unredacted, to the UK COVID-19 Inquiry, and to set out to the Scottish Parliament how many emails from personal and party email addresses have been shared with the UK COVID-19 Inquiry as part of its response to the Inquiry’s request for evidence.”15:21
I am grateful to the Conservative Party for making time for this important debate.
Transparency matters, in the boardrooms of the private sector and in the corridors of the Scottish Government. William Douglas reminds us that
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
He is not wrong. Without it, rot sets in—but there is very little sunlight in the Scottish Government right now. Thousands of grieving families are looking to the inquiries for answers. The UK Government WhatsApp messages that have been released so far show minute by minute what was really going on behind the scenes in London, and how decisions were made. The messages show that the discussions behind an order were often as important as the order itself.
The fact that the UK Covid inquiry had to instruct Scottish ministers to return to Parliament and set the record straight speaks to their having, at best, a casual attitude towards the work of the inquiry and, at worst, their attempting to undermine it.
Whichever analysis is correct, the Scottish Government has been deliberately slow-walking its co-operation with Baroness Hallett and her commission. The inquiry’s requests were in black and white and could not have been clearer. The Government said that it had interpreted the requests too narrowly. As I said in my intervention on the Deputy First Minister, that defence suggests a minimal and grudging approach to co-operation, instead of an approach that is as open as possible.
It was only when the pressure from the inquiry and the media became too great that the Scottish Government was finally embarrassed into playing ball. I really hope that that does not delay the evidence and findings of the inquiry or, worse still, act as a barrier to the answers to which the families are entitled.
I am grateful to Anas Sarwar for the Labour amendment, which gives us an opportunity to debate the functionality and application of the ministerial code. Should it just be for Humza Yousaf and his ministers to refer themselves to the independent adviser, or should there be provisions, as with the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland, whereby any third party that presents a threshold of sufficient evidence can trigger an investigation?
We will hear a lot from members of the Government parties today about the volume of messages that have finally been passed on by the Government to the inquiry, but drowning the inquiry in 28,000 messages, unredacted though they might be, will not make up for what is not there. It has been reported that the messages that the Scottish Government has handed over are mainly from group chats that feature three or more ministers and civil servants, and that they do not include one-to-one exchanges between members of the Government. Reports also suggest that the former First Minister and senior Government officials were routinely excising their message feeds.
We can argue about what the SNP was asked for and when, but for me, that is the nub of the matter. Secrecy, selective memory and a failure to record or retain the records of the most important meetings are nothing new to the SNP or, in particular, the former First Minister.
Looking back, we see that those were unprecedented times when we all laid party politics aside. More trust existed then between opposing front benches than ever before or since. Nicola Sturgeon said that her Government would make mistakes, and we all accepted that, in the knowledge and understanding that we were in uncharted waters.
I am very grateful to the member for giving way. Does he agree that some of the evidence that we have heard from the UK Covid inquiry about UK Government decisions has revealed that the culture and the way in which the organisation made decisions were as important as the substance of the decisions? Do we not have the same interest in having that same information about the Scottish Government?
I am grateful for Daniel Johnson’s intervention, which cuts to the heart of the issue. The background chatter behind the decisions that were taken and the culture that they reveal are as important as the decisions themselves.
We all agreed that the Government would make mistakes, but if those decisions were backed by science they would stand up to scrutiny by the inquiry that we all knew was certain to follow the pandemic. If Nicola Sturgeon has deleted key messages that informed her response—messages that might show how she weighed science against politics—in consideration of those decisions, she, too, undermines the work of the inquiry.
A particular tragedy of Scotland's pandemic story lies in the decision that was taken in April 2020 to move untested and Covid-positive patients from our hospitals to our nation’s care homes. However, we will forever be denied a comprehensive understanding of the discussion that led to that, because we will never have all the messages.
There has long been a belief that the former First Minister would deliberately breach the trust of collective four-nations decision making in order to dash out announcements before anyone else to look as if she was leading the field. There is also a belief that she took decisions based solely on a desire to be different from Boris Johnson. She will never be able to dismiss those suggestions fully, because we will never have all the messages.
Lives and livelihoods hinged on those decisions, yet the people at the heart of them—Nicola Sturgeon and her advisers—were erasing the discussions that underpinned such decisions. The grieving families and those who have been failed may be forever denied the full story behind the calls that she made. What about the gall of that, and the bare-faced mendacity of stating repeatedly in the chamber—from the floor on which we stand—that Nicola Sturgeon and her advisers would open themselves up to the full scrutiny of an inquiry that we all knew was sure to follow the pandemic, and then, it seems, to go home at night and systematically delete the very evidence that those messages could offer? That reality could yet prove to be one of the biggest scandals in the history of the Parliament.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant”,
but the governing party is afraid of the light, it is afraid of the truth that is concealed and it is afraid of the judgment that would surely follow and be rendered by the people of Scotland, should those truths ever come to light.
I fully expect that the SNP and the Greens will protect their leaders today, but if the debate has achieved nothing else, it should at least exert pressure on the Government to offer greater co-operation to the UK Covid inquiry and, by extension, to offer answers and a degree of closure to the grieving families who are at the heart of this.
We move to the open debate. I call Meghan Gallagher, to be followed by John Mason.15:27
Why is the Government not telling the truth? That is the big question that remains unanswered in the SNP’s secret Scotland.
For weeks, Douglas Ross has forensically questioned the First Minister about what information key players in the Covid-19 pandemic handed over to the UK inquiry, but the answers that have been given by Humza Yousaf and Shona Robison just do not add up.
On 31 October, it was announced that the Scottish Government was initially approached for WhatsApp messages by the UK inquiry in September. On 2 November, the Deputy First Minister said that it had been approached in February. The Government could be forgiven if it was a few days out, but eight months is not a simple mistake. Was the Government mendacious? If that was an honest mistake, why did it fail to correct the record? Those questions are why the Scottish Conservatives have brought the motion to the chamber today.
Something stinks about the SNP’s attitude to handling information over to the Covid inquiry, and it is the duty of every member of the Parliament to find out why. If the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister were confident in their positions, they would refer themselves to the independent adviser for the Scottish ministerial code. If they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to worry about. Instead, we have a whitewash amendment from the Scottish Government, which lays bare its arrogance and completely avoids any scrutiny or accountability.
That brings me on to the WhatsApp messages. We have been told about the 14,000 or 28,000 messages that the Government has handed over, but every time it is challenged on deletion of WhatsApp messages, it crumbles, because it knows: it knows that people who made key decisions during the pandemic have manually deleted WhatsApp messages.
Jamie Dawson from the UK Covid inquiry said that the majority of messages have not been retained. Some SNP members will say, “So what if those messages have been deleted?” We have been told that the Scottish Government did not make key decisions on that platform. I challenge every minister—or former minister—to prove that no key decisions were taken and to prove that the information that was deleted was not relevant to the Covid inquiry. However, we cannot prove a negative, can we?
People are up in arms about this because the key players—Jason Leitch and Nicola Sturgeon—were told not to delete messages during the pandemic because they could be relevant afterwards. However, even the UK inquiry now believes that vital information could be lost. I find that shameful, and I am sure that the bereaved families who are wanting answers will also find that behaviour shameful.
I referenced the SNP’s secret Scotland earlier, because transparency has never been the party’s strong point. We have seen it time and again—with Ferguson Marine, the botched Police Scotland information technology systems, the false claims around offshore wind and—who can forget?—the party’s finances probe. That is, by the way, still on-going. The governing party is shrouded in secrecy, and Scotland is worse off for it.
Members across the chamber have a choice. They have the choice to stand up to the Government and show that transparency matters, and that truth in the Parliament is more important than partisan political interests.
Does the member agree that it is incumbent on the members of the Parliament to be transparent, and that it is also a requirement under the Nolan principles that we be open and transparent? That demand is made on us when we take those roles.
I will give you the time back.
Absolutely. That is why the debate is so important. I am sure that there are many colleagues from all parties who stood for election for the same reasons as I stood, which were to represent their communities and to make sure that Scotland is a better place. They did not stand for election to defend sleekit behaviour and evasion, and to be lobby fodder for a Government that is determined to pull the wool over the eyes of the chamber and the public. It is past time that the Parliament stood up for itself and that its members showed some backbone and forced the Government to tell the truth.15:32
The subject of cross-Government transparency is an important one and impacts all levels of Government, whether at Westminster, here at Holyrood or in local government. The original title for today’s debate was “Cross-Government Transparency”, but none of those words appear in the motion, which I find a bit surprising: so be it.
It is worth reflecting on how we as a Parliament dealt with the Covid pandemic. We had frequent statements from the First Minister and other ministers, with ample opportunities to ask questions about decisions, such as why they were being made and when they were coming into force. We also had a Covid-19 committee, of which I was a member and which, when I joined it, was chaired by Donald Cameron. From memory, I have to say that it was fairly chaired. Week by week, the relevant minister and, usually, experts such as Jason Leitch and Linda Bauld answered questions in public or advised the committee. We should also remember that we were in unknown territory, with limited information but having to make urgent decisions. It is very easy to go back and consider with hindsight how we might have made different decisions, but, broadly speaking, there was a lot of agreement here at Holyrood—
To be able to look back with hindsight means that we have to look at all the records that are there, and we are talking about the fact that we do not have them. How does the member square that circle?
The question is relevant records, and I do not want to go into all—[Interruption.] No, that is what was asked for in February, as I understand it—the relevant records, not every cup of tea or coffee or whatever else.
I will carry on. We might have made different decisions looking back on things, but, broadly speaking, there was a lot of agreement here. As members will know, the Finance and Public Administration Committee recently carried out an inquiry into Government decision making. We spoke to past and present civil servants and ministers and came up with a number of recommendations.
However, it seems to be clear to me that, whatever systems we have, there needs to be some private space in which ideas can be bounced around and people can brainstorm and talk off the record. Yes—as principles, openness and transparency are good things, but we all need space with family, friends and staff in which we can let go, think out loud and bounce ideas around. I think that it was thought that WhatsApp could be used as that space.
Will John Mason give way?
No—not just now.
How were we using WhatsApp at that time, and how do we use it now? I looked back at the COVID-19 Recovery Committee WhatsApp group from June 2021 onwards, and I will quote some of the messages from members, some of whom are in the chamber today. If anyone would like to read all the messages, they are very welcome to do so. Murdo Fraser said:
“Well done Siobhian, expertly chaired”.
Brian Whittle said:
“Still in traffic on M8”.
Murdo Fraser said:
“I’m in a long queue trying to get into the car park”.
Jim Fairlie said:
“Morning all, Happy New Year to you all”.
Brian Whittle said:
“I’m running 5 minutes late”.
There were quite a few messages from him like that. Such messages show what WhatsApp was and is being used for.
Does that not just reinforce what has already been said during the debate, in that understanding the culture surrounding decisions helps us to understand the context in which conclusions were reached?
I can give you the time back, Mr Mason.
My thinking is that—
Why didn’t you read out any of your messages?
Could I speak, please?
My thinking is that, ideally, WhatsApp should not be used for decision making that is key or relevant. I would not be surprised if there were no relevant messages on WhatsApp. We will see whether that is the case in due course.
Will John Mason give way?
No. I am sorry, but I have given way already.
I am fascinated that the Tories are making what I think is a mountain out of a molehill in today’s debate. We could have discussed the situation in Israel and Gaza, inflation, college disputes or fire service pay, but no, the Conservatives want to know whether Shona Robison was stuck on the M90 or whether Humza Yousaf wanted chocolate on top of his cappuccino. [Interruption.]
Excuse me, Mr Mason. Could you resume your seat? The amount of background noise has just escalated. I encourage members to do the courtesy of listening to the member who is speaking, and the same respect will be afforded to subsequent speakers.
Several public inquiries are going on. What is the purpose of them? I suggest that the purpose is different for different people. Families who lost a loved one during Covid want to know what happened and why decisions were made.
I should perhaps declare an interest at this point. My mother died, aged 93, in a care home in early 2021. Visiting was very limited for almost a year, but I felt and continue to feel that that was the right way of handling things. The care home became my mother’s home, and the care staff there became her close friends—frankly, she got on better with some of them than she did with the wider family. However, even within my extended family, there is a variety of opinions as to whether more visits should have been allowed. I fear that there is no right answer to that, but many families are looking forward to whatever conclusions the inquiry reaches.
However, it has to be said that parts of the media and some Opposition members have different hopes for the inquiry. Some just want juicy gossip to boost their audience numbers, whereas some in the chamber and outside just want to give the SNP and the Scottish Government a kicking.
On the subject of transparency, it is useful to compare Holyrood with Westminster and elsewhere. For a start, as MSPs, we are all elected, which would seem obvious in a democracy. However, members of the House of Lords are, of course, not elected, and it is not at all transparent how people even become members of it. We now have the ridiculous situation in which the Foreign Secretary is in the House of Lords rather than in the House of Commons, so he cannot be routinely questioned by elected MPs.
Yes, openness and transparency are good things, but a balance needs to be struck. Publishing everything can have a chilling effect and limit fresh thinking. There needs to be a space for privacy and confidentiality. If that is not to be WhatsApp, it needs to be somewhere else.15:39
The pandemic was perhaps the most extraordinary situation that any of us will ever have faced in our lives or will ever face again. Thousands of people lost their lives. I am very sorry, but that is not gossip. To suggest that an interest in gossip is why this issue is being discussed in the chamber is, frankly, to cast aspersions on fellow members. I reject, as strongly as I can, some of the assertions that were made by the previous speaker. We have to understand what decisions were made on the basis of what information and in what context, because the results of those decisions cost people’s lives.
We have already heard from Alex Cole-Hamilton about the situation with care homes, which was perhaps one of the most sensitive periods in the whole pandemic. More than 2,300 excess deaths occurred in care homes in 2020. We were told time and again that that decision in April was made because we did not have the knowledge and the science to indicate that asymptomatic transmission might be possible or that it was a significant risk. The problem with that is that, if we look at the timeline of published science and evidence, it does not hold up.
On 28 January 2020, Jim McMenamin, an interim clinical director at Health Protection Scotland, attended the second meeting of the scientific advisory group for emergencies—SAGE—on Covid-19, where it was stated that there was
“limited evidence of asymptomatic transmission, but early indications imply some is occurring”.
On 19 February, Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases suggested that there had been asymptomatic transmission on the Diamond Princess, which subsequently resulted in other papers that went on to confirm that the majority of transmissions on the Diamond Princess were due to asymptomatic transmission.
On 5 March, that was confirmed in The New England Journal of Medicine, one of the world’s leading medical journals. That led, on 9 March, to the UK Health Minister, Lord Bethell, telling the House of Lords that
“large numbers of people are infectious or infected but are completely asymptomatic and never go near a test kit.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 March 2020; Vol 802, c 428GC.]
Quite simply, those sequences of scientific papers and stated positions in public bodies and parliamentary committees contradict and contrast with the fact that the First Minister at the time has said, time and again, that we did not have the knowledge.
We need to know whether the Government did not have that knowledge and was not looking at that information and that science, or whether it deliberately disregarded it. Only by looking at the full context of decision making can we know that. We need to know whether hyperlinks to those papers were being shared by officials and ministers in the Government. We need to understand that context, because that is the only way that we can really understand the nature of those decisions and the consequences that resulted.
We knew quite a lot at the time. One of the things that we knew was that hospitals in Italy were absolutely swamped with people, and it seemed to a lot of us—including, I think, members across the chamber—that getting people out of hospital had to be the priority.
The First Minister at the time has said, time and again, that we did not know that asymptomatic transmission was a risk. We need to understand whether the Government was taking cognisance of the latest science at the time.
Daniel Johnson is quite right, and the minutes of the Covid advisory committee of 20 April 2020 could not be clearer. They say that hospitals were screaming about asymptomatic transmission, and yet the same meeting was hearing about officials moving people out untested or having tested positive into Scottish care homes. Those two things were known at the same time. We need to understand why that advice was ignored.
Indeed, we do. If those facts and points that were raised in those bodies were being discussed in WhatsApp groups, we need to know that. Quite frankly, right now, we cannot confidently say that the messages will be released, because the Government’s position on what would be released has been all over the place. We have had the First Minister saying that everything would be released and that there would be absolute openness and transparency, but we have also heard that messages were being routinely and systematically deleted. There is, at best, confusion on the issue.
To speak to the heart of the motion, we need an investigation into whether, wittingly or unwittingly, the First Minister misled Parliament. Frankly, all of us are profoundly confused about what the Government was retaining and on what basis. Again, the Government is relying on dancing on the heads of pins with regard to particular words.
Time and again, we hear about relevant information but, frankly and simply, it is up to the UK inquiry to decide what is relevant. Why does the Scottish Government not trust it? I simply do not understand. It is as though it expects the UK inquiry to break privacy rules and the law. The UK inquiry will look at what is handed over and judge whether it is relevant and whether it needs to be redacted. Why does the Scottish Government not trust it?
Above all else, we in the chamber all know some simple truths about what happened. We all know that Government decision making shrank to a very narrow number of ministers and close advisers and that, most of the time, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister were in close consultation with key special advisers. I am not saying that that was necessarily the wrong thing to do. Those were extraordinary times, because it was a crisis, but we need to understand what happened and whether that cost lives. Ultimately, we need to learn the lessons. That will not be the last time that this country faces a crisis but, unless we learn the lessons, lives will be lost again, needlessly, all because this Government cannot be transparent.15:45
Making easy political points is not what constituents want to see from their elected representatives. [Interruption.] Let me finish. That is not what they want to see, particularly in a debate such as this. In his opening comments, Douglas Ross stated that the debate should not be party political, and I took him at his word. Sadly, as the debate has gone on, some of the comments and, certainly, the barracking from his back benchers have gone against what he said in his opening comments.
I was genuine in my comment that the debate should be above party politics. That is why I think that SNP and Green members and the Government should be independent-minded and look at the facts. Looking at all the details, does Stuart McMillan believe that the request from the UK Covid inquiry in February for all the messages constituted a request for those messages, or does he agree with Shona Robison that the request happened only in September, just a few weeks ago?
Stuart McMillan, I can give you the time back.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer.
The point about relevance is really important in that—
No—it is not.
I am sorry—we will have to agree to disagree.
On a point of order, Deputy Presiding Officer. I seek your guidance. The standing orders are very clear that we must treat each other with respect. Rather than cast suspicion on their motives and on whether people are presenting facts and arguments at face value, surely members should be respectful and consider that other members are speaking in good faith.
I thank Daniel Johnson for his point. I think that, to date, the debate has been fairly respectful. I will intervene if I do not think that that is the case.
I invite Stuart McMillan to continue and I will give him the time back.
In today’s debate, Scottish Conservatives have put forward their opinions but, in my opinion, the First Minister and the Scottish Government have been absolutely committed to openness and transparency. The First Minister has been clear that neither he nor the Deputy First Minister have misled Parliament. The Scottish Government has already provided more than 19,000 documents to the UK inquiry, in addition to the 14,000 WhatsApp messages.
For absolute clarity, the Scottish Government has complied and worked with both inquiries and will continue to do so. Some people will suggest that those statements imply that the Scottish Government does not appreciate scrutiny, but that could not be further from the truth. I firmly believe—and my SNP colleagues feel the same—that scrutiny is the bedrock that underlies effective governance. That is why, in December 2021, the Scottish Government established the first public inquiry in the UK to examine the response to Covid-19, ahead of the UK Government commencing the UK-wide public inquiry. At the heart of the motion is the Covid-19 pandemic, which impacted every one of us and changed our lives indefinitely.
John Mason spoke about his family situation. My mum went into a care home just over a year ago—obviously, not during the Covid period. Throughout the whole Covid period, there was no Covid in the care home that my mother went into. Covid started to go into the home only once we started to go back into a more normal society.
Every Government the world over was taking decisions based on its own context. In some countries, the response was driven by scientific understanding, whereas in others it was driven by ideological agendas. Scientists became the biggest asset to Governments during the pandemic but, ultimately, it was up to politicians to decide what course of action, what guidance and what legislation was introduced in response to Covid-19.
As John Mason touched on, day in, day out, in the chamber and committees of the Parliament, ministers were being questioned about their decisions and what they were planning to do. It is important that we reflect on those decisions. We cannot speak for other nations, but the most important way of recognising the loss and suffering of the people of Scotland and the wider UK population during the pandemic is to learn from the evidence, including the scientific evidence that Daniel Johnson referenced earlier.
To go back to today’s motion, in one of my opening statements, I said that the Scottish Government has already provided more than 19,000 documents to the UK inquiry, over and above the 14,000 WhatsApp messages that have also been handed over. Since December 2022, the Scottish Government has been assisting the inquiry by providing a large volume of evidence to the inquiry team, including corporate and individual statements and extensive documentation. To date, the Scottish Government has provided 25 detailed corporate statements and it has also been involved in the request for 89 individual statements.
Does the member not have a concern, at least, that it is the Scottish Government that is making the decisions on what is relevant and what is not relevant to disclose?
Some of the examples that we heard from John Mason probably cover the issue of relevance. Once again, let me be clear that there has never been any hesitation on the part of former members of the Scottish Government to provide all the information that it holds. When appropriately and legally requested to do so by the UK and Scottish inquiries, the Scottish Government has co-operated fully and will continue to do so.
The Deputy First Minister has already set out that, on examining the content of WhatsApp messages, it became clear to the Scottish Government that they held some sensitive personal data, which means that, under data protection legislation, there must be a clear legal basis for providing that information. That is why the Scottish Government requested a section 21 notice, which would give that legal basis for the provision.
We have all heard some of the examples of what happened at Westminster during the pandemic.
Will the member give way?
The member is winding up.
I have already taken two interventions.
I gently suggest that the Conservatives try to convince their colleagues in Westminster to behave somewhat differently, in contrast to some of the colleagues that I have here in the Scottish Parliament.
The reality is that the Scottish Government’s messages that will be handed over to the UK Covid-19 inquiry will be starkly different from those of Westminster politicians. Unlike the UK Government’s attempts to limit the requests for information from the chair of the inquiry, Baroness Hallett, the Scottish Government has always committed to fully co-operating with the UK inquiry and the Scottish public inquiry. Going back to the section 21 notice, which was received on Monday 30 October and was actioned in line with the UK inquiry’s deadline of Monday 6 October, the Scottish Government has consistently acted in line with its records management policies and relevant legal obligations with regard to collating and storing corporate information.
I truly hope that the public see through some of what we have heard today from some of the Scottish Conservatives. I genuinely believe that the motion is nothing more than an attempt to deflect from what we have seen in Westminster in comparison to what we have seen here in Scotland.15:54
The SNP Government rightly and richly deserves the wretched reputation that it has earned when it comes to its record on transparency. This secretive Government picks and chooses how and when it engages with issues of significant legal and public interest.
It is self-evident and beyond reasonable doubt that Humza Yousaf and Shona Robison have misled the Scottish Parliament. They made and repeated false and misleading claims about when the UK Covid inquiry requested crucial WhatsApp messages. Grieving families are rightly demanding answers, and they deserve them. However, sadly, the Government will not give them all that they need to know to bring justice and closure. Transparency and, as a result, the truth are defined as optional extras in the SNP’s cynical political playbook.
Let us look at the evidence that is before us. In June 2021, the UK Government wrote to the Scottish Government requesting that it did not destroy material relevant to the UK Covid inquiry. Two months later, Nicola Sturgeon announced a separate Scottish Covid inquiry, when she said that nothing will be “off limits” to the Scottish Government when it comes to providing information. How shallow that sounds now.
By December, John Swinney, who now appears as a Praetorian bodyguard accompanying the spectral figure of Nicola Sturgeon around this Parliament, said:
“I pledge that the Scottish Government will engage, as I know that this Parliament and everyone in Scotland will, to support Lady Poole in this most important”—[Official Report, 14 December 2021; c 74.]
In August 2022, the Scottish Covid inquiry wrote to the Scottish Government requesting that information relevant to the pandemic be retained. That November, the UK Covid inquiry asked the Scottish Government about potentially relevant messages, including WhatsApp messages, during the pandemic.
In February 2023, the UK Covid inquiry explicitly asked the Scottish Government for any WhatsApp messages “relating to ... key decisions” taken during the pandemic. Let us note the wording here: “relating to”. That means messages involving discussions around and discussion about those decisions, even when those decisions were taken elsewhere. The fact that decisions may be formally taken in a different forum or in a different context cannot cynically become the Government’s default defence for deleting and withholding important WhatsApp messages relating to those decisions.
This June, Humza Yousaf said that all material that was asked for by the inquiry would be provided. Over the summer, requests for WhatsApps were sent to individual ministers, former ministers and civil servants in the Scottish Government, yet the First Minister and his deputy still claim that they were first requested in September. That was plainly untrue. Their attempt to deflect involves a claim that they had interpreted earlier requests too narrowly. That simply does not stack up.
In August, the Scottish Government had already confirmed to the UK Covid inquiry the existence of WhatsApp groups that were used by the Scottish Government. It conceded that they existed, but it still would not hand over those messages. For clarity, let us not forget that Humza Yousaf said in June that
“WhatsApp messages, emails, Signal messages, Telegram messages or whatever—will absolutely be handed over to the Covid inquiries and handed over to them in full.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2023; c 15.]
How can that possibly be consistent with reports that the former First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, deleted her WhatsApp messages despite earlier assurance from her to the contrary? That follows a pattern of deflection, diversion, distraction, deletion and, at times, outright deceit.
A review of similar events proves a pattern of behaviour that supports our motion. SNP Government officials held deposit return scheme meetings verbally to avoid correspondence being obtained through freedom of information requests. During Alex Salmond’s judicial review, the SNP Government’s own legal counsel admitted that it could not advise the court that the Scottish Government had discharged its duty of candour.
The Salmond inquiry committee found that the SNP Government’s refusal to hand over documents had impeded its scrutiny function. Nicola Sturgeon admitted that there were no minutes of notes of a crucial meeting with former Ferguson Marine owner Jim McColl. The SNP Government refused to reveal the outcome of a bullying probe into one of its own ministers. This month, the health secretary, Michael Matheson, agreed to pay back £11,000 in roaming charges, 10 months after they were paid by the taxpayer, but only after that scandal hit the headlines. That is the SNP’s track record on transparency, and it should be ashamed.
The Scottish Government’s ministerial code says that ministers should resign if they “knowingly mislead” Parliament. We will only know that if Humza Yousaf and Shona Robison refer themselves to the independent adviser on the ministerial code.15:59
It has now been nearly four years since health professionals first took notice of a novel virus outbreak in China. In the months that followed, Governments around the world scrambled to mitigate the health, social and economic effects of the unprecedented situation. People in Scotland were asked to make sacrifices to ensure that those who were most vulnerable were shielded from the worst of the pandemic before the heroic effort to develop and procure a vaccine was completed.
Despite those efforts, many families found themselves bereaved because of the pandemic—my sympathies go to John Mason, who shared his own story today. Many more are still suffering the effects of long Covid, and the overall pandemic and repeated lockdowns have taken a toll on the health, education and wellbeing of the population that is difficult to quantify.
Because of the severe effect that the pandemic has had, it is right that we learn from the evidence of that time to find out what we could have done better. Doing so will also improve Government decision making during any potential future pandemic, and therefore save lives and prevent suffering. That will not only help all of us in the future; it is an important way to recognise the loss and suffering of the people of Scotland and of the wider UK population during the past few years.
It was for those reasons that, in December 2021, the Scottish Government established the first public inquiry in the UK to examine the response to Covid-19. That was ahead of the UK Government’s commencement of the UK-wide public inquiry. That the Scottish Government showed the initiative to establish that inquiry underlines its commitment to openness and transparency. It recognises that scrutiny is the bedrock that underlies effective governance.
Fulton MacGregor has just said that scrutiny underlines the integrity of Government decisions. Does he not welcome the scrutiny that would be offered by the independent adviser on the ministerial code to prove or otherwise the version of events given by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister?
Fulton MacGregor, I can give you the time back.
Douglas Ross heard what the Deputy First Minister said. I welcome her response on that.
The Scottish Government has co-operated and will continue to co-operate with the Scottish and UK-wide inquiries on the pandemic. A huge volume of data has already been provided to the UK inquiry. Nearly 20,000 documents have been passed on, and that figure does not include the nearly 15,000 WhatsApp messages that have been sent in addition.
As can be imagined, that is a huge amount of data. In managing that data, the Scottish Government has consistently acted in line with its data management policies and relevant legal obligations concerning the collecting and keeping of that information. The Scottish Government’s records management policy ensures that material that is relevant to the Covid inquiries is retained. The Scottish Government recognises the importance of data storage, and records management processes have been established for recording decisions made by ministers and officials, which form part of the Scottish Government corporate record. It is important that that policy also covers messaging applications, such as WhatsApp, which has been a key talking point in the debate thus far.
Will the member take an intervention?
No, I have already taken one. I give my apologies to Mr Greene.
The nuance in this debate centres around the requesting of a section 21 notice with regard to WhatsApp messages. The Deputy First Minister has already clarified that personal information was present in that data and, as such, a clear legal basis was needed to provide that data. Following data protection guidelines, the Scottish Government requested a section 21 notice, which was received just over two weeks ago. That action was to comply with the Data Protection Act 2018, using mechanisms found in the Inquiries Act 2005. The Scottish Government conformed with the deadline to provide the messages to the inquiry, and all messages were given to the inquiry on 6 November.
Will the member give way?
I cannot; I would like to make some progress.
Any assertions about what those messages may or may not contain are conjecture at this point. It is important that everyone in the chamber and beyond allows the inquiry to determine the importance of the content of those messages. The bottom line is that the Scottish Government has acted legally, and it will continue to co-operate fully with both inquiries.
The readiness of the Scottish Government to hand over WhatsApp messages should be commended by everyone in the chamber. I gently say to Conservative members that all Governments that are involved in the inquiry should show the same readiness because, at the end of the day, we all must remember that both inquiries are about real people who want answers—real people, businesses and organisations in our constituencies that were affected by a whole array of decisions that were made or not made, as the case may be.
People in care homes have already been discussed—
Will the member take an intervention?
No, I will not take any more interventions.
We must all keep in our minds the children in schools, people suffering from long Covid and businesses that closed and never recovered.
There should be absolutely no party politics in this debate. We have heard that before. The inquiries should be allowed to do their work and get the answers that the public deserve and need.16:05
Parliament is using its time today to talk about something that matters and which it has the power to do something about. We are talking about Government secrecy—specifically, the desperate lengths that the SNP goes to to shut down legitimate and important public scrutiny. It should have preserved and handed over its WhatsApp messages to the Covid inquiry, but instead it has chosen to be slippery and evasive.
This all feels familiar. This is not the first time that the SNP has run for the shadows when faced with the disinfecting sunlight of scrutiny. It used exactly the same playbook during the Alex Salmond inquiry. Now, as then, it hides behind process. It delays, dodges and stonewalls; it prevaricates, misremembers and misrepresents. It deploys sophistry, selective amnesia, bad faith and bluster, and point blank refuses to do the right thing. The SNP uses a broad spectrum of deceit, from the political equivalent of “The dog ate my homework” right through to a low cunning that would make Machiavelli blush.
That was as painful and infuriating to watch as a member of the public as it is now as an MSP. Back then, the SNP failed alleged victims of sexual harassment by its former leader, and now it fails grieving families who lost loved ones to Covid. Both groups were treated with disrespect and were considered to be of less value to an SNP that will always prioritise the good of the party over the common good.
Let us compare the two events. The SNP promised to co-operate fully with the Salmond inquiry. It promised transparency and to freely hand over any and all material, just as it does now with the Covid inquiry. However, what happened then and what is happening now? Back then, Nicola Sturgeon held numerous meetings with Salmond while he was being investigated over sexual harassment complaints. No records were taken—or they may have been destroyed. We do not know for sure.
Now Sturgeon and others have reportedly deleted WhatsApp messages. We do not know how many messages, and we do not know what they said. It is likely that the people of Scotland will never know. During the Salmond inquiry, the SNP tried to prevent the release of documents. The inquiry committee complained about being obstructed. Let us not forget that it included SNP MSPs and an SNP convener. For the first time ever, Parliament had to resort to using a section 23 order to force the release of documents.
We see the same secretive agenda with the Covid inquiry. Key evidence has to be dragged out of the SNP. The inquiry has been asking for WhatsApp messages for over a year.
Then there are the shifting sands—the changing of stories. In the Salmond inquiry, four senior Government officials had to correct false statements. The SNP’s then chief executive was accused of perjury after contradicting his own evidence three times. In relation to the Covid inquiry, Humza Yousaf, who really should be here today, and Shona Robison have been forced to change their story after the inquiry demanded that they correct the record to the Parliament.
Then there are the stalling tactics. During the Salmond inquiry, the SNP delayed everything until the last minute. Access to crucial legal advice was refused time and again in defiance of two votes in the chamber. It was only when my party brought a vote of no confidence in the then Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, that some of the advice was finally released.
We see the same with the Covid inquiry. Now, as then, it is up to the Scottish Conservatives to use every parliamentary lever available to us. Now, as then, the SNP has misled and disrespected Parliament. It also disrespects the people of Scotland. MSPs from every party, including the SNP, can join us today in holding it to account by backing our motion.16:10
I would like to start with a quote—I was actually a bit worried earlier, because a lot of what was in my speech was used by Alex Cole-Hamilton in his speech. The quote is from Nicola Sturgeon at around the start of the Covid crisis. She said:
“I understand, because I’m First Minister leading a government, how difficult and unprecedented this situation is. We’re all trying to make the best decisions.
We can undoubtedly get things wrong along the way, as every government across the world will be, and I’ve been very clear about that from the outset.
I’ll make mistakes, everybody involved in leading these responses will make mistakes, but it’s really important that we take the best decisions that we can at every single stage and try to learn from that as we go.”
I remember that time so vividly, because it had such a profound effect on me, my constituents, my family, my friends and my relatives who died at that time, in difficult circumstances. That is what we should be talking about today—the people and the effect that Covid had on them.
I remember sitting in a room upstairs with many of the people who are in the chamber today, getting briefings from Jason Leitch and the chief medical officer. They were open and transparent and willing to answer any of the questions that people in the room had about the policies that the Scottish Government was taking to try to keep people safe.
I do not remember anyone at that time making comments that they distrusted the chief medical officer or Jason Leitch, or that they were not all thinking that we were in it together. I do remember that there were never any suggestions at that time that there would be a policy to get herd immunity or that the bodies could “pile high”.
Everybody was concentrating on what the inquiry is about, and what today should have been about in this Parliament—people getting the answers that they deserve and which are needed, so that the learning from that experience can be taken forward. We do not know when there might be another such crisis and another pandemic.
The tone of the debate has been completely wrong. A pantomime villain is being sought by members across the Opposition benches, but the truth is that, at the time, everybody was just having to adapt to Covid by working differently, communicating differently and trying to do the best that they could. My team introduced WhatsApp and Slack at that time, because we were trying to do the best that we could to ensure that we were still able to provide a service to our constituents in the most difficult of circumstances.
The Scottish Government is complying with the inquiry. It has already provided 19,000 documents, in addition to 14,000 WhatsApp messages, in line with its own policy on how decision making should have been recorded at that time.
I cannot believe that we are hearing all this. I remember when there was a crisis: Catherine Calderwood made a mistake that was unforgivable and lost her job over it. At the same time, what we were seeing at Westminster was Dominic Cummings going on family trips to Barnard Castle and treating people with absolute contempt.
I know that hearing the WhatsApp messages that have come out in the Covid inquiry with regard to the atmosphere in Downing Street will have been really hard for members on the Conservative benches. It has really not been edifying in any way to see the contempt with which some civil servants treated politicians, the contempt with which some of the decisions were made and the attitude that meant that the individuals who were affected by Covid were not given the prominence that they deserved.
A lot has been said today about the nature of those decisions and the context in which they were made. I know that there are people who will not agree with me, but I believe that the context of the decisions that were made in Scotland—with the team of medical experts and the First Minister that we had at the time and the transparency that she showed every single day as she stood up to the press’s scrutiny, in marked contrast to Boris Johnson—shows that those decisions were made in the very best interests of the people of Scotland.
However, that is not for us to judge. It is not for the people on these benches or the people on the other benches to judge. It is for the people of Scotland to look at what happened in order to make their own decisions about whom they trust—whom they trusted at that time—and where they looked for their information. It was not the Downing Street briefings—that is absolutely true.
I do not think that this debate has helped the families who have been affected by this situation at all. I regret what has happened here this afternoon; this has been a search for a pantomime villain who does not exist. The debate has been implausible political point scoring from the party that partied all the way through Covid.16:16
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate.
If I can find agreement with the previous speaker, Clare Adamson, it is on the fact that this is about the people of Scotland. I agree with Fulton MacGregor that this is not about party politics; this is, at its foundation, about why we stood to be parliamentarians. It is about what is encompassed in our standing orders about events taking place in public and in our guidance to MSPs on their general conduct. It is about what the Scottish ministerial code seeks to embody with regard to what we expect from our Government.
All of this goes back to 1995 with the founding of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was chaired by Lord Nolan. The committee was asked to say why the public was losing confidence in politicians. It then took evidence and, in 1995—before, in all honesty, most of us entered a professional political life—it founded the seven principles that are drawn to the attention of MSPs, if not on the first day that we come to the chamber, then certainly during the first week of induction.
Those same seven principles are pointed at by our councillors who serve in local authorities, by our MPs who go to Westminster and within health boards and other emanations of the state. They set out the expectations on us when we stand up and speak for people or for a subset of the people of Scotland, whether at constituency or regional level.
The principles talk about selflessness, integrity and objectivity—in other words, that we are impartial, fair, judge on merit, use the best evidence and act without discrimination. They also talk about accountability. I thank Douglas Ross for allowing my intervention, because the fact is that, under the principles,
“Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.”
It is not just about taking decisions, and it is not just about taking the right decision—it is about being open to saying, “This is why I took this decision. Hold me to account.”
Does Martin Whitfield agree that Clare Adamson’s speech reflected a time when the First Minister had a certain degree of latitude in the chamber for the decisions that she took—a blank cheque, as it were—because we were in uncharted and scary waters? Does he also agree that, as a result of that blank cheque, she should, with confidence, provide all the material around the decisions that she took, because there should be nothing to hide?
I call Martin Whitfield. I can give you the time back, Mr Whitfield.
Indeed, the circumstances of Covid tested the democratic settlement that we have with the electorate and the country. They proved the worth of those Nolan principles. It is in the hardest of moments that we need to look back at what makes this state different from other less democratic states, and different from a dictatorship: it is the ability to be accountable, open, and honest, and to show leadership.
On many occasions in this chamber and in discussions in this Parliament, we have heard about the role of leadership and how we are leaders in our community. We turn to our young people and ask them to be leaders in their schools. The Nolan principles require holders of public office to exhibit those same principles that I mentioned in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support those principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.
That is important, because, in the foreword to the Scottish ministerial code, our current First Minister echoed previous ministerial codes, but he also said:
“As First Minister, I have promised to lead Scotland in the interests of all our people”—
the people that Clare Adamson spoke about—
“and to work to earn”—
this is the important bit—
“and re-earn the respect and trust of the people of Scotland.”
The quote goes on:
“That is why I am pleased to issue this ... Ministerial Code which sets the highest standards of propriety and transparency for Government Ministers. All Scottish Ministers, including myself, are bound by its terms ... ensuring integrity, accountability and honesty at every level of leadership.”
The First Minister also said:
“I will lead by example”.
The key message when the Nolan principles were reviewed was that many of those whose integrity was called into question, or has been called into question in recent months and years, seemed to have behaved inappropriately, not because they were unaware of what was expected—that is, under the Nolan principles—but because they did not find it expedient to do so. High standards of behaviour need to be understood as a matter of personal responsibility.
Today’s debate speaks to that. It speaks to why we sit in this Parliament, and to what the Scottish Government owes the people whom Clare Adamson talked about. Lord Evans, the current chair, said:
“The damage done to the trust and confidence that the public have in those in political and public life has been significant.”
Let us end that now, here in Scotland. Let us show that we stand by those Nolan principles, even when it is not expedient to do so.16:22
Having listened to what has been said so far, I want to make a few key points in the debate. What Clare Adamson said about what the former First Minister said is absolutely relevant and appropriate.
Will the member give way?
We must remember the work of Nicola Sturgeon and, of course, Jeane Freeman, Jason Leitch and Gregor Smith. They put work in every day when we were witnessing on our television screens what was happening with the pandemic around the globe.
Will the member give way?
I can see already that folk are gonnae be on their feet every two minutes, no matter what we say.
First, it is vital that we learn from and reflect on our experience of the pandemic and that we obtain answers for those who lost loved ones over the course of the pandemic. We have already heard members reflect on their own experience of losing loved ones. We need to ensure that we help families who are still grieving. It is important that we ensure that both the Scottish and UK inquiries go ahead and are clear, transparent and engaging.
I remind members that I worked as a nurse during the pandemic, vaccinating my colleagues and members of the public. That was during a time when we had a lockdown because, just after lockdown, we had the first Covid vaccines. We were right there on the front line. We need to remember what happened back then so that we can improve the way that we tackle any future outbreaks of whatever virus or deal with whatever pandemic or crisis that we face.
The people who lost their lives are not just statistics.
Will the member take an intervention?
Our condolences should go to all the victims of Covid-19.
Emma Harper is right. Those people are not just statistics. They have families, and those families are looking for answers. Those answers are not forthcoming and will not be forthcoming unless we have a complete picture of the backroom discussions that underpinned all the decisions that she described.
I was reflecting on the fact that the Scottish Government has a policy for mobile phones and records management. It says:
“Mobile messaging does not change your responsibility within Scottish Government to maintain complete and comprehensive records of key conversations and decisions.”
All that information is already there.
Will the member give way?
I move on to my second point. The Scottish Government is committed to openness and transparency and recognises that scrutiny is the bedrock of effective governance. Stuart McMillan mentioned that as well. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, as well as other ministers and officials in the Scottish Government, have evidenced and emphasised that point. Indeed, the fact that the Scottish Government was the first Administration in the UK to establish an independent public inquiry on Covid-19, ahead of the UK Government commencing its inquiry, is testament to the importance that the Scottish Government gives to scrutiny.
Will the member give way?
The most important way to recognise the loss and suffering of the people of Scotland and the wider UK population during the pandemic is to learn from the evidence.
Will the member take an intervention on that point?
Both inquiries will help to determine what could have been done differently and will serve to improve Government decision making in any future pandemic, viral outbreak or other crisis. We want to ensure that we focus on how we save lives and prevent suffering in the future. As the First Minister said, the Scottish Government will examine and consider closely the recommendations that the Scottish and UK public inquiries make. We need to let the inquiries progress. That would be the normal thing to do.
Contrary to what the Conservative motion states, the Scottish Government has fully complied with both inquiries and will continue to do so. Scottish ministers, including the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and officials have already provided a large volume of information. Members have outlined that. The Scottish Government has provided 25 detailed corporate statements and has been involved in the request for 89 individual statements in support of module 2A of the UK inquiry.
Will the member take an intervention?
On the Scottish Government’s amendment to the motion, former members of the Scottish Government have never hesitated to provide any and all information that they hold. Again, that is crucial for learning lessons and understanding how the handling of pandemics can be improved in the future.
Will the member take an intervention?
I am conscious of time and of the constant chuntering by Conservative members.
I am concerned about the fact that not only did the former UK Prime Minister drag the UK inquiry through court but Boris Johnson has still refused to hand over his WhatsApp messages.
Will the member give way?
In contrast to the UK Government’s attempts to limit the requests for information from the chair of the UK inquiry, Baroness Hallett, the Scottish Government has already committed to fully co-operating with the UK inquiry.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. It should go on record that the chuntering that the member referred to was members trying to intervene in a debate when interventions were not being taken; it was not chuntering. It is important that that is recorded.
Thank you, Mr Halcro Johnston. It is not a point of order, but your comments are on the record.
Ms Harper, have you concluded?
Yes I have, Presiding Officer.16:29
I want to use my five minutes in this debate to highlight to the Parliament why we should be debating deleted messages, why trust in this process should not and must not be eroded and, disappointing as it is that the motion is needed in the first place, why any misleading of this Parliament should be taken with the utmost severity.
We are focusing on the Covid-19 pandemic, and rightly so. It was a new viral infection that hit the world and took loved ones from us. Families have been grieving due to Government decisions that were made on how to deal with the pandemic and the many ramifications of those choices.
People all over the country put their faith and trust in their Government to see them through a global infection. They trusted the people who had been elected to the Parliament to make decisions to keep them safe—not decisions for political gain or self-promotion, but decisions that followed science and that were altruistic at heart. That is the only way that people can accept the unintended consequences from the restrictions that were imposed.
My father was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in April 2020. He passed away in October of that year as the cancer had spread to his lungs and his liver. In any other time, he would have been given instant treatment, exploratory processes would have been administered and the chances of prolonging his life even for a short time would have been discussed. In his case, they were not. The country was in lockdown and Covid effects had altered the priorities of our NHS. The treatment offered was curtailed and he instantly went to management, not medicine. My mum, living in a different council and health board region from me, was left to carry the burden without my in-person support.
Now, I am not unique. That happened to people across the country. Just like me, many could not travel to see dying loved ones under decisions that were made in Scotland by this SNP-run Scottish Government. Those people deserve accurate and truthful information and answers from a full and transparent Covid inquiry. My mum certainly does. Any ambiguity or lack of transparency does all the grieving families a disservice. Whether they are grieving due to Covid-19 or other diseases whose treatment has been affected by changes in NHS practices, people deserve to know the whole truth, and that means that all forms of communication—trivial or not—need to be assessed and their relevancy accounted for.
If any further clarity is needed on that, the First Minister agreed in June this year, when he said:
“to ensure that there is simply no doubt whatsoever, any material that is asked for—WhatsApp messages, emails, Signal messages, Telegram messages or whatever—will absolutely be handed over to the Covid inquiries and handed over ... in full.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2023; c 15.]
That must be followed if we are to know whether the unintended consequences affecting on-going health treatments, children’s development, people’s mental health and the disrupted education of a generation of young people were all worth it, and if the many thousands of families who suffered loss are to get the answers that they deserve.
Why, when the UK Covid inquiry explicitly asked in February 2023 for any WhatsApp messages, were they not provided in full?
Would the member accept that it asked in February 2023 only for relevant messages?
Again, we are right back to “relevant messages”. It is up to the inquiry to decide what is relevant.
Why, eight months later, in October 2023, did the Scottish Government force the UK inquiry to issue a section 21 notice to retrieve messages? Why were the messages deleted by individuals? Why was the First Minister’s statement of June 2023 not followed to the letter? This is not just a matter of process. This is about people and their need for answers.
When my husband had a stroke in another lockdown period, he was in another council and health board region for more than three months, so we could not see each other. The lockdown restrictions meant that I should not cross the boundary between the Forth Valley and Lothian health board areas. The restrictions also meant that it was not allowed to pass a bag of clothing from one person to another for fear of contamination. However, I was advised by doctors at that time that it would be okay to drive to the hospital as long as I came alone, wiped down the bag and wore gloves and a face mask.
I consider myself lucky because I could, in a small way, let my husband know that I was there for him. Others were not so lucky. People in hospitals were left isolated, lonely and in some cases scared, sitting in a hospital chair in a hospital gown, alone.
Too many people across Scotland coped with the decisions that were made in the Parliament, are living with the consequences of those decisions and lost family members as a result of those decisions. They deserve accurate and truthful information to be provided. Any misleading statements that were given to the Parliament by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister not only break the ministerial code but shame them and misplace the trust of the Scottish people. Therefore, I support the motion in Douglas Ross’s name.16:35
Today, we are discussing very serious matters, and I commend colleagues for their contributions, some of which have been powerful. As I think back to the period of the pandemic, like colleagues, I recall all those who suffered in my constituency and across the country, particularly those who lost loved ones and who are mourning every day for those people in their lives. I think of the NHS staff who had to cope with the pandemic at the time, those who worked in our care homes and those who were lonely, as well as the economic disruption and the closure of our schools. It was all very difficult for everyone.
Because of the circumstances and the way that they affected everyone and had such significant impacts on people’s lives that they are still living with today, it is vital that we learn from those difficult years and reflect on our experience. That is why, in December 2021, the Scottish Government established the first public inquiry in the UK to examine the response to Covid-19. That was ahead of the UK Government commencing the UK-wide public inquiry.
Both inquiries are extremely important. The best and most appropriate way to respond to the loss and suffering of the people of Scotland and the wider UK population is that we learn from the evidence. The inquiries are being undertaken with diligence and extremely high levels of commitment and will help to identify what could have been done better and to improve Government decision making in a pandemic, if there is one in future years, in order to save lives and prevent further suffering. There are also lessons to learn when it comes to responding to other circumstances.
As others have said, the decision-making process in the UK was initially based on the advice of SAGE and there was an integrated network to pass advice and information across the UK nations. Ministers have stated that the Scottish Government will examine closely the recommendations that both the Scottish and UK public inquiries make. We should all be focused not just on what we can learn from the recommendations of those inquiries but on what we can learn from elsewhere.
The Scottish Government has been clear that it will continue to co-operate fully with both inquiries. As the Deputy First Minister stated earlier, the Scottish Government has already provided a large volume of information to the Scottish and UK inquiries and will continue to provide more as appropriate. As has been set out, the Scottish Government has already provided more than 19,000 documents to the UK inquiry, in addition to thousands of WhatsApp messages. The fact that 19,000 documents have already been provided demonstrates the diligence of the civil service in ensuring that decisions were recorded and that advice that was considered was appropriately recorded, as members would expect.
Will the member give way on that point?
I will take one intervention.
I welcome the tone and manner in which Mr Macpherson has addressed the matter. However, does he agree that, ultimately, it is for the judge of any inquiry, rather than the participants or subjects, to decide what is relevant and what is not?
I agree with that, and I think that there is a shared position on that in the room.
I emphasise that the Scottish Government is committed to openness and transparency and that, every day, it responds to scrutiny, including through freedom of information requests—I am sure that the minister will refer to those points when he sums up. There is a very robust and professional process in the Government, which is used regularly and was used especially during the pandemic, to ensure that it responds to the requirements that are placed on it.
The points about record management are extremely important. It is right that we are thinking about them together, and it is right that we remember that, as others rightly stated during the debate, this was a time when there was a change in technology and the circumstances of the pandemic were all relevant to the considerations.
In my final moments in the debate, I want to focus on something that has not been said by others, which is that the civil service did a remarkable job during the pandemic. People worked long hours every week with commitment, tenacity, innovation and determination to serve the people of Scotland, along with other services such as the NHS that we rightly commend. Let us not forget that the commitment that Government officials showed, whether by ensuring that decision making happened in a timeous manner by briefing ministers as best they could—as the scientists who were involved did—or by working with local authorities to get money to businesses. All the difficult considerations that took place required the highest level of public service, and we should remember that when we are in the chamber and considering these important points.16:41
The benefit of being in the Parliament for so long is that you get to see patterns of behaviour over time. The past 16 years of the SNP have been instructive. What I have learned is that these are not isolated incidents or even—at their most generous interpretation—mistakes; this is a systematic approach to government. It is an approach that is characterised by secrecy and a lack of transparency. A bit of reflection might be useful.
Let me take you back to the Parliament’s Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints—for shorthand, the Salmond committee—and to the war that went on to get information from the Government, the WhatsApp and text messages that were discovered only after several requests and the lack of information on the legal advice that was taken by the Scottish Government, in which its counsel said that the case should be abandoned because the Government was going to lose. Never mind the cost to the taxpayer. It took months of argument and, ultimately, motions of no confidence in the chamber for John Swinney to finally give us sight of some of the documents that were required.
I have to say that the approach to the Covid inquiry bears remarkable similarity to that. The Government tells us how many thousands of pages it has supplied but not about the quality of the information. During the Salmond inquiry, many of the thousands of pages that we were provided with were either blank or so heavily redacted that all we could see were black lines.
Secrecy is the SNP’s modus operandi. Look at Ferguson Marine and the award of that disastrous shipbuilding contract, information on which was withheld from the Parliament’s audit committee. Circularity Scotland was created so that ministers did not need to be answerable for decisions about the bottle return scheme, and so it goes on.
I am reminded that Nicola Sturgeon first committed to a public inquiry in May 2020, and I commend her for that. She knew then, and subsequently confirmed, that she would disclose all Government emails, private emails and WhatsApp messages to the inquiry. Frankly, it is appalling that that has not been complied with and that she appears to have manually deleted messages—a point that she is unwilling to confirm or deny. It would appear that deleting messages has been going on on an industrial scale, and not just by politicians—Jason Leitch, the national clinical director, was at it too. How many messages from Jason Leitch, Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney or Humza Yousaf have been transcribed to the official record, as the Deputy First Minister said they would be?
I am delighted that the First Minister found his old mobile phone and that he is handing it over. Can he tell us—through whoever is responding for the Government—whether the inquiry was told that the phone was initially missing, and whether it is only because he discovered an old mobile that he can now provide messages?
Can ministers hand over emails from their SNP email accounts? I know that they use them as a means of avoiding scrutiny. Have any of those been handed over to the inquiry? If so, from which ministers and special advisers? I welcome the provision of all legal advice being handed over to the UK inquiry. Can the Deputy First Minister confirm that that is without qualification? After all, it should be for the inquiry to judge what is relevant, not those who have a vested interest in protecting themselves from the outcome.
It is not just individuals who have withheld information, it is the Government itself. I understand that a key document on the decision to send older people untested into care homes appears to have gone missing. I genuinely think that the SNP Government, particularly its ministers, has decided—and this is how cynical it is—that to be criticised for being secretive and not sharing information is better than to reveal the content of those messages. It is so disappointing that the Scottish Government has told half-truths and that it had to be invited to correct the record by the UK Covid inquiry. That is embarrassing.
Aamer Anwar, who is representing the families, said that the Scottish Government’s
“failure to provide clarity, constant changing timelines and excuses combined with the redundant excuse of ‘confidentiality’ inflames a belief that you are obstructing the search for truth.”
I could not agree with him more.
I will turn to the comments that were made by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in the chamber. In May and at least twice in June, the First Minister promised to be open and transparent, saying that it would all
“absolutely be handed over to the Covid inquiries and handed over to them in full.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2023; c 15.]
In October, “in full” became “any potentially relevant information”. With the greatest respect, it is essential that the inquiry decides—it is not for the Government to decide.
It is clear from the exchanges on 31 October and 2 November that entirely contradictory timelines and information have been provided by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. It would appear to anyone who is watching that the ministerial code has been breached. The question for me is whether it was a genuine mistake or a deliberate attempt to cover up? Given what I have seen over the years, secrecy trumps all with the Government. The matter should be referred for investigation in order to consider whether the Parliament has been misled.
This is an important debate. It is about accountability and standards in public office, as Martin Whitfield spoke about, and, importantly, it is about getting truth and justice for Covid-bereaved families, the older people who were discharged to care homes without testing, the families who were unable to visit loved ones in care and the children whose education was compromised and who are still suffering the consequences. All of them deserve answers. This is a matter of trust and accountability.
In closing, I am so disappointed with the Deputy First Minister’s amendment, as it fails to apologise or even acknowledge that the SNP has given incorrect information to the chamber. It is complacent and insulting to those who lost loved ones. I will finish by repeating what Anas Sarwar at the end of his contribution: what does the SNP have to hide?16:48
I will spend most of the time that I have available going through various points that have been made by colleagues. I will start by saying that the reassurances that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have provided for some time now are compelling and informed.
During the debate, Fulton MacGregor made an extremely important point when he said that it is up to both inquiries to make the decisions and provide the answers that everyone else is looking for. All communications that we have demonstrate the care and close attention that is being given to the huge task of ensuring that both inquiries receive the information that they have requested and that they require in order to provide comfort to those whom Covid-19 hit the hardest.
As the Deputy First Minister is, I am thoughtful of the impact that all our discussions have on the Scottish Covid-bereaved families and my thoughts are with all those who experienced a loss during the pandemic. In her extremely powerful speech, Clare Adamson mentioned that we are talking about people and not statistics. In this debate, it is extremely important that we talk about the humanity of the situation.
Every one of us has a Covid story. As we have heard today, everyone has someone in their family who has been affected. In my case, two years ago, my mother-in-law ended up in the Royal Alexandra hospital, and one day in the past couple of weeks probably marks two years since we held her funeral. I am aware of how triggering such debates are, so we must be respectful. In all honesty, I care about what the families think about what went on. They are the most important people in this debate. Like Clare Adamson, I am 100 per cent behind that idea, and it is important that we remember that in everything that we do.
As we have heard and discussed at length, the importance of good records management practice as a keystone of delivery is paramount to the Scottish Government. Such practice is auditable and is a regulated requirement of government and governance. It allows our data and information to be in order to ensure that we can provide robust evidence on decisions that have been taken. The Scottish Government has high standards of records management, and we will continue to ensure that good practice and transparency are at the forefront of our records management.
If ministers, special advisers or officials failed to submit any or all communications to the records management system, what sanction would they face?
As I have said numerous times when I have been asked questions about the records management system, all decisions are taken and all practices are done through the SCOTS IT system. No decisions are taken in any other way. In order for us to make a decision and take something forward, we have to go through that process, so Jackie Baillie’s argument is not relevant in this scenario.
I will highlight some of the important work that the Scottish Government has delivered in relation to transparency. Taken together, that will show that the Government is committed to being open and transparent and is delivering in that regard.
The Scottish Government’s digital strategy is committed to increasing access to data and to delivering an ethical digital nation. As part of that commitment, we have been considering how data ethics plays a role in the Government’s use of data. That work has included discussions with the public, as well as with academics, to understand how the Scottish Government can increase transparency in its use of data.
The Scottish Government is committed to open government principles of transparency, accountability and public participation. As part of our clear commitment to transparency, we are delivering, in partnership with civil society, Scotland’s third open government national action plan. Our work on those action plans ensures that trust, integrity and person-centred approaches are central to the functioning of the Government.
The minister is speaking about openness and transparency. I asked the Deputy First Minister whether the investigation by the Solicitor General and the permanent secretary, which the First Minister launched four weeks ago, had been delivered, but she did not cover that point in her remarks. Have those reports been delivered to the Scottish Government? If so, what did they say?
That work is on-going.
I will continue with what I was saying about open and transparent government. Our current commitments are in areas that civil society and members of the public have told us are extremely important to them: the on-going promotion of transparency, participation, inclusivity and accountability.
As an example of the work that we have been delivering in collaboration with civil society, I draw members’ attention to our commitment to fiscal transparency. Among other things, we are in the process of developing a fiscal transparency portal to make information on the Scottish budget more accessible to the public. The platform will support understanding of how public money is raised and used by bringing together and presenting our fiscal information in a more accessible, open and understandable way.
At a time when misinformation is on the rise, I emphasise that the Scottish Government recognises the importance of political integrity and transparency. It takes those issues extremely seriously. [Interruption.]
Thank you, members.
Our recent freedom of information performance reflects that commitment. Information about the work of the Government can be obtained by members of the Parliament through responses to parliamentary questions, and by all citizens through exercising their rights under FOI law. Business areas across the Scottish Government have worked hard to complete our recovery from the delivery challenges of the pandemic and to return to our target performance levels for FOI requests.
By increasing our data tracking, we have been able to identify earlier where delays might arise. As a result, our FOI response rate has averaged 97 per cent since June. Our request numbers have increased by 60 per cent since the pandemic, and our FOI performance is now better than it has been at any point since the intervention began.
We will continue work in that regard, including by improving our training and further developing our network of case handlers, and through planning that is under way. I am pleased that that achievement was recognised in the progress report from the former Scottish Information Commissioner last month, and that I received encouraging feedback at my first meeting with the new commissioner, David Hamilton, when I met him last week.
Finally, I reassure Parliament of our commitment to do all that we can to ensure that the important work of both inquiries can proceed at pace, and that we have a robust process in place to ensure that it does.16:55
I will do my best to sum up the key points in the debate. As I said at the outset, I share the disappointment of Douglas Ross and others that the First Minister has not been here to listen to the debate, which is fundamental to his leadership of the Scottish Government and to the issues of integrity and transparency to which Mr Adam referred.
Let us remind ourselves why the debate is so important. Over the past couple of weeks, I have listened to some of the testimonies that have been given to the Scottish Covid inquiry by those who lost loved ones due to Covid and whose loved ones died in care homes during lockdown restrictions. Some of those stories were truly heart-rending. They struck a chord with me, because my mother died in a care home in February 2021, during the second Covid lockdown. From the point that we had to take her into a care home in December 2020, when we realised that, as a family, we could not provide the 24-hour care that she required, we did not see her and we could not speak to her. The only point when we got to see her was after she had the stroke that would kill her, and she was lying unconscious. As was the case with other families and their loved ones, we had no contact with my mother over the past few months of her life.
I know that many other families faced similar situations. We have heard from Mr Adam, Roz McCall and others about the situations that people experienced. It is my view—it is just a view, but it is my view—that the cruelty of not allowing people to see their loved ones in the last few weeks, months or even years of their lives was a greater cruelty than exposing them to the risk that they might catch Covid and end their lives sooner. If I had been able to ask my mother, she would have shared that view that I hold, and, because I have heard their testimonies, I know that there are many other people who would equally share that view. I also know that others will take a different view.
I agree with the point that John Mason made in the debate. We were in unknown territory. We did not know what we were up against or what the risks were. I do not blame anyone for the decisions that were taken, because we did not know what those risks were. However, I hope that what the inquiries can be about is getting answers as to why those decisions were taken and learning lessons.
My mother was not given a choice, and neither were other people’s relatives. Those decisions were taken for her and for us by the Governments of the day.
I pay tribute to the member for his candour in obviously very difficult personal circumstances, but does he agree that it is really important to understand the basis on which those decisions were made and what information was being shared, both formally and informally? Having those WhatsApp messages is critically important, because they will allow us to understand what people knew and what they did not know but should have known.
I am grateful to Mr Johnson for that point; it is precisely the point that I was about to make about why the inquiries and the issue of transparency are so important. We need to learn the lessons. If—perish the thought—we come up against a similar situation in the future, we need to have learned from our experience and know why those decisions were taken. Should we have to take those decisions again, we need to know how to weigh the harms to people—in terms of their education and health, which we have heard about from others—against the risks from Covid or another pandemic. Therefore, transparency is all-important.
Let us remind ourselves of the timeline that was set out by Douglas Ross at the start of the debate. It was back in June 2021 that the UK Government wrote to the Scottish Government requesting that all material was protected, given that a UK Covid inquiry was going to be set up.
In August 2021, Nicola Sturgeon, the then First Minister, announced that a separate Scottish inquiry would be established and said that nothing would be off limits. In December 2021, the then Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, announced the formal establishment of the Scottish inquiry and pledged Scottish Government support. In February 2023, the UK Covid inquiry formally requested all messages, including WhatsApps, from the Scottish Government. The wording of that request is fundamentally important to the point that we are making today. This quote comes from a parliamentary written answer from Shona Robison on 8 November. The Covid inquiry said:
“Please provide any communications relating to key decisions, including internal and external emails, text messages or WhatsApp messages (on Scottish Government and private or personal devices), held by the Scottish Government.”—[Written Answers, 8 November 2023; S6W-22874.]
Despite what we have heard from the Scottish Government, the wording of “any communications” is unequivocal. We know that that request was followed up with further requests in July, August and September 2023, among others.
On 31 October 2023, Shona Robison told the Scottish Parliament:
“The UK inquiry asked in June for summaries of all WhatsApp and similar groups relating to co-ordination, logistics and day-to-day communication, thereby greatly expanding the scope of what the Scottish Government needed accordingly to collate and process. That request was followed in September by a request for the actual messages that were exchanged within those groups.”—[Official Report, 31 October 2023; c 62.]
On 2 November, Humza Yousaf, told the Parliament:
“It is crucial to say that, when the UK Government inquiry asked us in June for details of the various WhatsApp groups concerning Covid 19, it did not request the messages themselves. The messages were asked for in September, just a matter of weeks ago.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2023; c 17.]
That is what the Official Report says. I cannot see how that is reconciled with the wording of the request in February 2023 from the UK Government, which asked for “any communications”. Can the Deputy First Minister provide clarification on why she thinks that those two positions can be reconciled?
Will the member give way?
I will give way to her, but I cannot see it.
I was very clear in my speech today that the information that was set out in the statement related to the key decision-making interpretation of the original messages. In my statement, I was very clear that the UK inquiry had made previous requests for information. The First Minister and I have acknowledged that, looking back at the wording of that request, it was too limited an interpretation.
Will Murdo Fraser accept that all of that information has been provided, so it is now for both inquiries to decide about the scope and adequacy of the information that is provided to them?
That was a very long and unconvincing intervention. It does not answer the key point that I asked about the wording in February 2023, when the inquiry asked for “any communications”.
If the Deputy First Minister is so confident of her ground, why can she not support our motion? Our motion does not condemn the Scottish Government or say that there has been a breach of the ministerial code. It is a straightforward motion that says that the matter, which is clearly in dispute, should be referred to an independent adviser under the ministerial code. If the Scottish Government believes that it is right, the independent adviser will, presumably, vindicate that position. Why can it not be put to an independent adviser to be assessed? Let us remember that former First Ministers have done that. If I remember rightly, Alex Salmond referred himself twice to an independent adviser, and Nicola Sturgeon did so in the context of the Salmond inquiry, as Douglas Ross reminded us. What does the Scottish Government have to hide? Its refusal to refer the matter suggests that it is on uncertain ground.
On that point, does that not fulfil the Nolan principle that the Government should submit itself to the scrutiny that is necessary to ensure transparency?
The convener of the Parliament’s Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee makes a fair point about the need for transparency.
I fear that what we have heard from the Government typifies Scottish ministers’ sense of arrogance and entitlement—they do not feel that they have to submit themselves to scrutiny from external bodies.
There is a clear parallel with what we have seen over the past few days from the health secretary, who is still missing in action from this Parliament, on the question of his roaming charges. If he has done nothing wrong, and he can prove that he has done nothing wrong, why is he not being transparent and open with the information? The fact that he is refusing to do that leads to suspicion that there is something amiss in his behaviour.
Presiding Officer, I am conscious that I am already over my time. Let me just say in closing that, for years, this Scottish Government has presented a holier-than-thou attitude, claiming some sort of moral superiority over people at Westminster. However threadbare that claim was before today, it has now been exposed as wholly false this afternoon. I do not doubt that the Government will win the vote in a few minutes’ time, because it will whip its back benchers into supporting it. However, in doing so, it will lose the last shred of credibility that it has held.
George Adam has just told us that this Government values “political integrity and transparency”. The families of Covid victims, the families of those who died in care homes and the people of Scotland expect better from this Government. If it really does care about transparency, truth and integrity, it will vote in favour of the motion in the name of my friend Douglas Ross.
That concludes the debate on an independent investigation into the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.