Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Scottish Govt drops fight to withhold local income tax information

The Scottish Government has released documents detailing the financial implications of a proposed local income tax scheme following a two-and-a-half year fight to prevent disclosure.

The documents, written by Dr Andrew Goudie, Mr Salmond’s chief economic adviser, explain how the projected revenue from this proposed local income tax had declined by up to £158 million. In order to fill this gap, the local income tax levy would have had to be 50 per cent higher than Mr Salmond claimed.

The legal battle began when the Daily Telegraph made a Freedom of Information request for the revised local income tax revenue projections from Scottish Ministers in 2009. The Scottish Government refused the request on the grounds that the information was exempt under section 29(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, which applies to information relating to the formulation or development of government policy.

The case went to the Scottish Information Commissioner. The Commissioner ordered the information to be released because the decision by Scottish Ministers in January 2009 to delay the introduction of the tax until after the election in 2011 created a weighty public interest in understanding the projections available to Ministers at that time. The Scottish Government appealed this decision, taking the case to Scotland’s highest civil court, the Court of Session. The result of this legal move was that disclosure of the documents was postponed until after the Holyrood election in May.

According to the Daily Telegraph, opposition parties claim this was a cynical move on Salmond’s behalf to hide this embarrassing information in the run up to the Scottish elections.

The case was due to go to the Court of Session, however in a surprise U-turn ministers withdrew the appeal last week. John Swinney, Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth Secretary, said: "While this particular issue became academic given that the information is already in the public domain, we will of course continue to uphold the wider principle in regard to policy formulation.”

However, only one small part of the information had been leaked in a Telegraph article in April 2011. Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, is critical of how the government has responded:

“This has been a most extraordinary case, throughout which the Government has consistently challenged almost every aspect of my investigation.

It resisted my conclusion that the request was valid; it disputed whether certain information was relevant to the request; it took court action against a statutory notice requiring Ministers to provide information I needed in the course of my investigation; and finally appealed to the Court of Session against my decision which ordered the information to be disclosed.

Some two years of work and £60,000 in legal fees later I have received notice from my solicitors that the Government intends to abandon that appeal and meet my expenses.”

Read the full story in the Telegraph and the Scottish Government’s press release.

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