The rural economy secretary, Fergus Ewing, has been accused of breaching the ministerial code by failing to record 25 meetings with the fish farming industry.
Figures released under freedom of information law reveal that in the last four years Ewing has met with individual salmon farming companies 21 times and the industry’s umbrella body four times.
According to the government’s Marine Scotland, it is not “normal practice” to keep written records of the meetings because those attending “do not consider it necessary”.
Environmental campaigners argue that this breaches the Scottish Ministerial Code which requires “basic facts of formal meetings between ministers and outside interest groups to be recorded”, including “the reasons for the meeting”.
But the Scottish Government pointed out that it was the responsibility of officials, not ministers, to arrange for meetings to be recorded. There had been “absolutely no breach whatsoever” of the code by Ewing, it said.
Ewing has been criticised by opposition politicians who describe the allegations as “deeply worrying” and demand “maximum transparency” from the minister. Information rights campaigners warn that the public interest is damaged by “secret meetings”.
In November 2019 Christine Richards, who lives in the Argyll village of Tayvallich, made a freedom of information request to Marine Scotland. She asked how many meetings Ewing had had with fish farming companies since he became Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism in May 2016 – and for records of the meetings.
Marine Scotland replied in January 2020 disclosing 21 meetings with seven companies, and four with the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, which represents the industry. Ewing met six times with both Mowi, formerly known as Marine Harvest, and Dawnfresh Farming and three times with The Scottish Salmon Company.
But Marine Scotland said that it did not have any records of the meetings. When Richards requested a review, Marine Scotland found three documents but refused to release them as they were “internal communications”.
Richards, surprised that there were apparently no notes or minutes for most of the 25 meetings, then asked why not. In response Marine Scotland’s enforcement manager, Murdo MacLeod, told her in April 2020 that he had consulted colleagues.
“They have stipulated that it is not normal practice to keep written records of meetings between the Cabinet Secretary and the fish farm companies, because the parties attending these meetings do not consider it necessary,” he said.
Fish farming industry meetings with rural economy secretary, Fergus Ewing, since May 2016
|Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation||4|
|The Scottish Salmon Company||3|
|Scottish Sea Farms||2|
Source: Marine Scotland
On 17 April Richards wrote to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, accusing Ewing of repeatedly breaching the Scottish Ministerial Code and requesting an investigation.
Richards highlighted paragraph 4.22 of the code covering ministers’ meetings with outside organisations. “A private secretary or official should be present for all discussions relating to government business,” it said.
“Private offices should arrange for the basic facts of formal meetings between ministers and outside interest groups to be recorded, setting out the reasons for the meeting, the names of those attending and the interests represented.”
Richards alleged that such records had “deliberately” not been kept meaning that Ewing had breached the code. “I would be grateful therefore if you could investigate this matter further as against the Scottish Ministerial Code,” she asked Sturgeon.
To date Richards, a member of the Friends of the Sound of Jura, a local group which has opposed fish farms, has not had a reply. “Mr Ewing does not appear to have been operating in a way that is expected and required of a Scottish minister in a democratic country,” she told The Ferret.
“He has been flouting the ministerial code with impunity and apparently without any repercussions. The statement that there are no minutes or records of these numerous meetings with representatives of the aquaculture industry is very disturbing and questionable.”
John Aitchison, from the Friends of the Sound of Jura, pointed out that Ewing was a strong supporter of the fish farming industry plan to double its business by 2030. “We find it astonishing that Mr Ewing could meet the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation and individual fish farm companies 25 times without his officials keeping any records of these meetings,” he said.
“The government has already had to reverse its decision to weaken freedom of information legislation, and now it turns out that Mr Ewing has breached the ministerial code 25 times, apparently to avoid his dealings with lobbyists being exposed through freedom of information.”
Scottish Labour pointed out that two major parliamentary inquiries into fish farming had urged better regulation. “These are deeply worrying reports and simply illustrates the blasé approach Fergus Ewing takes to the environmental and welfare concerns raised,” said the party’s rural economy spokesperson, Colin Smyth MSP.
“Fergus Ewing knows more than anyone that there is more scrutiny of the sector than ever before, yet it appears he still took the extraordinary decision not to follow the ministerial code and frankly common sense to keep proper records of the meetings he has had with fish farm companies.”
Smyth urged “maximum transparency”, given the “huge challenges” ahead for government and industry. “They say they want to build confidence and demonstrate they can deliver the responsible and sustainable production methods being called for by many people, but unless there is a more open approach from the government it will do more to damage the sector than it will to enhance it.”
The Scottish Greens environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP, said: “The Cabinet Secretary must clarify the veracity of this serious claim. The public expect, and are entitled to, transparency from the Scottish Government.”
The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland has been running a campaign to “get it minuted” since January 2018 to try and prevent meetings from going unrecorded. “We sought enhanced scrutiny of a particular problem which scuppered the purpose of transparency and accountability laws,” said the group’s convener, Carole Ewart.
“We are very disappointed that people still appear to be motivated to operate under the radar which breeds public suspicion and are the ingredients for poor decision making. The public interest is undermined by secret meetings.”
Ewart pointed out that the Scottish Government’s “poor practice” was still under enforcement action by the Scottish Information Commissioner. “It is exceptionally disappointing if these allegations prove to be true,” she added.
The Scottish Government pointed out that the code clearly stated that it was the responsibility of officials, not ministers, to arrange for the basic facts of meeting to be recorded. “There has been absolutely no breach whatsoever of the ministerial code by Mr Ewing relating to these meetings,” a government spokesperson told The Ferret.
“Minutes are taken only at meetings where there is substantive government business or where policy decisions are being made. Ministers regularly meet with a wide range of businesses and stakeholders with an interest in their portfolio responsibilities – as has always been standard practice in Scotland and the rest of the UK.”
An “administrative oversight” meant that one of Ewing’s meetings had not been recorded in the government’s online register of ministerial engagements and gifts “for which we apologise and will now be added,” the spokesperson said. “We will be replying to Ms Richards’ letter shortly.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation said: “As the representative trade body of the UK’s leading food export, we hold regular meetings with a number of key stakeholders, including ministers and senior officials in both the UK and Scottish governments.”