Michael Simmons

What happened to the SNP’s dodgy dossier?

How the ferry files got buried

What happened to the SNP's dodgy dossier?
Text settings

In the final weeks before the 2014 Scottish referendum, the last independent Clydeside shipbuilder went bust. The SNP was boasting about ‘one of the world’s wealthiest nations’ going it alone, so when it went pop something had to be done. A millionaire adviser to Alex Salmond was lined up to buy it on the understanding that he’d bid for government contracts. A year later, a £100 million deal was struck to build two ferries.

That deal quickly ran aground. There was no sign of the ferries by 2018 and the bill had doubled to £200 million. It later emerged that the businessman, Jim McColl, had put in the most expensive out of the six bids to build the ferries – raising questions as to whether he’d been picked because the SNP owed him a favour. He now admits to being Salmond’s go-to man to save politically-important companies from bankruptcy, saying Salmond ‘approached me every time there was a company in trouble in Scotland’. This morning he accused Nicola Sturgeon of lying about the deal.

And this is where the real fun starts. The paperwork, it seems, has vanished. The latest from the Scottish government is that ‘a thorough search has been conducted and the paperwork/documentation [relating to ferry contracts] cannot be located’. This is incredible.

Rewind 15 years to 2007, just after the SNP came to power: a civil servant from Northern Ireland, Tom Shaw, publishes a review into historical sex abuse in Scottish children’s homes. In the Holyrood debate that triggered the inquiry, the problems of missing records and documents became clear. Nicola Sturgeon spoke movingly.

Shaw’s review concluded that improper record-keeping had made it difficult to investigate systemic abuse. Missing records and deleted archives hampered the inquiry at every turn. His review said ‘poor records management practices mean that records are missing, have been destroyed or weren’t generated in the first place.’ Sound familiar?

Shaw recommended the government urgently review legislation covering institutional record keeping. As a result, in 2011 just before Sturgeon became deputy first minister, Holyrood passed The Public Records (Scotland) Act, which places a legal duty on Scottish public bodies to register a ‘records management plan’ with the National Records of Scotland. 

Most Scottish agencies now use a corporate records management system called Electronic Records and Document Management System (eRDM). The system, rolled out in 2005, makes it almost impossible to lose – or accidentally delete – noteworthy documents. 

I know this through my own spell as a civil servant in Scotland. Part of my role involved writing the file management policy for my team and through this, I became all too aware of the workings of the eRDM system. When a file is stored, you need to state if it has corporate significance. If so, it becomes a permanent part of the corporate record because of its historical importance. Files marked as such were almost impossible to delete. When they reached the end of their shelf life, these files are transferred to the National Records of Scotland ‘for permanent preservation’.

What sort of documents would be marked with corporate significance? Decisions around a multi-million pound ferry procurement contract would be an excellent example. But if you do want to delete a document, it’s quite the rigmarole. You need to seek approval from your line manager and then mark it as a ‘document for deletion’. A robot (or someone in IT) would periodically go through the files and delete as appropriate. But crucially, every action in the system was logged.

If you were to be interviewed for a promotion you could quite easily find your boss’ potential questions on the system. But it wouldn’t be a smart move to check – every interaction with the file would be recorded. To delete an important document in the Scottish government’s system leaves a massive digital train. It is almost inconceivable that such a trail does not exist.

It is worth noting, too, that the shipbuilding contracts awarded to Jim McColl went against official advice. A memo that has been published shows that the chair of the ferry procurement agency told the government: ‘there is no way the board can recommend the [Scottish government]... take this level of unsecured risk’. Civil servants would certainly have required official direction to press ahead in the face of such forthright advice. Ministers don’t deny this. At First Minister’s Questions last week Sturgeon said ‘the document would have been an email or a note saying the minister was content on the basis of the reasons set out.’

So how are emails dealt with? The government’s email system automatically archives normal messages after 60 days to free up space. But this document wasn’t a normal email. That would have been clear to whichever civil servants were involved. If it was recorded as a policy document then it should have been saved, only to be destroyed after 20 years. In other words, if the rules were followed, the emails should still be in the system.

Even if the documents can’t readily be found, it is incredible that it should be irretrievably lost. As those civil servants who (like me) are familiar with this system will know, it was either deleted, with all the logging and digital paper trail that would have involved, or never made it into the system in the first place. So let’s go through the only three options:

  1. That the ferry files were deleted (perhaps illegally): If so, the action will be on a log somewhere. Has the government looked through those? Jack McConnell, a former first minister, has pointed out that ‘when we wrote and then passed the Freedom of Information Act, we included clauses to make the destruction or removal of official documents a crime.’ Though this only applies after an FoI request is put in.
  2. That the ferry files were kept secret from the system: So those involved were either grossly negligent or wilfully corrupt (i.e. civil servants were told that this was a special political contract to be kept off the books). But that would be pretty high-stakes corruption, as it would go in open defiance of codes with which every Scottish civil servant has been familiar since 2005. It would have been well established by 2014 that a document of that importance would need to be recorded on the file system.
  3. That civil servants were excluded from the ferry procurement decision-making: How else to explain the absence of documentation? But the ministerial code is very clear on this. Any government business discussed must be reported to the relevant civil servant so a note can be made as soon as possible. Failure to do this is a clear breach of the code. 

If the file does still exist, it will almost certainly be found – probably once the media attention has died down. Sturgeon’s team will know this. Just as they knew this would happen before they were admonished by a judge in the Court of Session for ‘finding’ documents at the last minute when being sued by the former first minister Alex Salmond.

Back in 2004 Sturgeon had recently been elected deputy leader of her party. The future was bright. She was ambitious and, reading her contributions to the debates around Tom Shaw’s inquiry, she seemed interested in genuine change. Doing government better. Nearly two decades on, has all that much really changed? Laws were passed, civil service policies strengthened and staff extensively trained. But still we cannot get to the truth of a matter integral to the lives of the people of Scotland. At the outset of the Shaw review, Sturgeon called for a ‘full examination of what went wrong’. Perhaps Ms Sturgeon will accept that something here, too, has gone very badly wrong. But I wouldn’t hold your breath.