Cole-Hamilton speaks in debate on government transparency

15 Nov 2023
Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

Speaking in the Scottish Parliament this afternoon during the debate on government transparency, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said:


“Presiding Officer, transparency matters - from the boardrooms of the private sector to the corridors of the Scottish Government.


William Douglas reminds us that sunlight is the best disinfectant. He’s not wrong. Without it, the rot sets in. There is very little sunlight in this Scottish Government right now.


Thousands of grieving families are looking to these inquiries for answers and UK Government WhatsApps show minute-by-minute what was really going on behind the scenes and how decisions were made.


It shows the discussions behind an order were often as important as the order itself.


That the UK Covid Inquiry had to instruct Scottish ministers to return to Parliament and set the record straight speaks to, at best, a casual attitude to the work of the Inquiry or, at worst, an attempt to undermine it.


Whichever analysis is correct, the Scottish Government has been deliberately slow-walking its cooperation with Baroness Hallett and her commission.


The Inquiry’s requests were in black and white. They could not have been clearer. The government said they had interpreted it too narrowly. Narrowly? That defence would suggest a minimal, grudging approach to cooperation, instead of being as open as possible. It was only when the pressure from the Inquiry became too great, when the media pressure became too great, that the Scottish Government were finally embarrassed into playing ball.


I really hope that this does not delay the evidence and findings of the Inquiry, or, worse still, act as a barrier to the answers the families are entitled to. 


I am grateful to Anas Sarwar for bringing forward Labour’s amendment today. It gives us an opportunity to debate the functionality and application of the ministerial code. Should it just be Humza Yousaf and his ministers who can refer themselves to the Independent Adviser? Or should there be provisions more like the Ethical Standards Commissioner where any third party who presents a threshold of sufficient evidence can trigger an investigation?


Presiding Officer, we will hear a lot about the volume of messages that have now, finally, been passed on by government to the inquiry.


But drowning it in 14,000 messages, unredacted as they may be, will not make up for what isn’t there.


It has been reported that the messages handed over by the Scottish Government are mainly from group chats featuring three or more ministers and civil servants, and 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. And we can argue about what the SNP were asked for and when, but for me this is the rub of the matter.


Secrecy, selective memory and a failure to record or retain the records of the most important meetings are nothing new for the SNP and, in particular, for the former First Minister.


Thinking back, it was an unprecedented time. 


We laid party politics aside, more trust existed then between opposing frontbenchers than ever before or since. Nicola Sturgeon said they would make mistakes, and we accepted that, in the knowledge that we were in unchartered waters, and that if decisions were backed by science they would stand the scrutiny of the Inquiry that we all knew was certain to follow.


Presiding Officer, if Nicola Sturgeon has deleted key messages which informed that response, messages that might show how she weighed science against politics in the consideration of those decisions, then she too undermines the work of the Inquiry.


The particular tragedy of Scotland’s pandemic story lies in the decision taken in April 2020 to move untested and covid-positive patients from hospitals to our nation’s care homes. But 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 4 nations decision making to dash out announcements before anyone else. To look like she was leading the field.


That she took decisions based solely on the desire to be different from Boris. She will never be able to fully dismiss those suggestions, because we will never have all of the messages.


Lives and livelihoods hinged on these decisions and yet the people at the heart of this, Nicola Sturgeon and her advisers, were erasing the discussions that underpinned decisions like these. Those grieving families, those failed, may be forever denied the full story behind the calls she made.


The gall of it.


The barefaced mendacity of it.


To state, repeatedly in this 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 we all knew was sure to follow the pandemic.


And then, it seems, to go home at night, and systematically delete the very evidence those messages could offer.


That reality could yet prove to be the biggest scandal in the history of this Parliament.


Presiding Officer, sunlight is the best disinfectant.


But this is a governing party afraid of the light.


Afraid of the truths they conceal.


And afraid of the judgement that would surely be rendered by the people of Scotland should those truths ever come to light.


I fully expect the SNP and Greens will protect their leaders today, but if this 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 offer answers and a degree of closure to the grieving families at the heart of this.”



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