The Scottish Government has been accused of undermining the integrity of expert evidence given to the Holyrood committee examining its controversial named person scheme.
Serious concerns have been raised about Government meetings held behind the back of the Education Committee scrutinising the named-person legislation. Scotland on Sunday has learned that the concerns have been outlined in a letter sent by Tory MSP Oliver Mundell to his fellow committee members.
It says that a series of meetings involving several organisations before they were due to appear before the committee creates the perception that the Government was seeking to unduly influence those about to give evidence. Plans to allocate every Scottish child a named person to look after their wellbeing proved hugely controversial with critics claiming it will undermine family life. The education committee has also taken evidence criticising the scheme’s code of practice for being too complex. Earlier this month Education Secretary John Swinney promised that the code will be re-written.
Mundell’s suspicions were aroused when witnesses mentioned behind-the- scenes meetings taking place between the Government and various organisations to discuss redrafting the code.
Evidence given to the committee at the end of October by Ben Farrugia of the Centre for Excellence for Looked after Children in Scotland said some organisations were “already involved in redrafting the code of practice”.
Answers to a parliamentary question then revealed that since mid October the Scottish Government had met with a number of organisations. Mundell’s letter said this was before they gave oral evidence to the committee.
This month the committee received a letter signed by several children’s organisations urging MSPs to pass the bill at Stage One. The signatories say they are prepared to work with the government to produce a bill and code that can be supported by the children’s sector and the Scottish Parliament. Mundell said he did not think the signatories had done anything wrong but believed the committee should have the chance to ask them how they had come to their conclusion. His letter also suggested previous witnesses who were not party to the Government’s thinking on redrafting the code did not have the chance to express their views on the changes.
Last night Mundell said: “The nature and pattern of the Scottish Government’s activities at a critical point in the parliamentary process have crossed the line from well-meaning engagement into something more sinister.
“By choosing to consult with and influence an exclusive and handpicked audience at the eleventh hour they have potentially denied the opportunity for full and proper parliamentary scrutiny. Given the legal minefield which surrounds this bill there are big questions about whether the Scottish Government should be meddling in this way.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “As the Deputy First Minister openly made clear to Mr Mundell, he and the Scottish Government meet organisations constantly. The Deputy First Minister sent an open letter to the committee summarising engagement with a number of outside organisations which occurred after they gave evidence to the committee.”