Scotland’s Information Commissioner has become embroiled in a Holyrood election row after her office said she would delay “critical” decisions on the SNP Government until after polling day.
The row began when the watchdog said that a freedom of information ruling on the SNP plan for standardised testing in schools would be shelved amid fears about impartiality.
Rosemary Agnew, the current Commissioner, decides on FOI disputes involving information held by hundreds of public authorities.
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According to the SIC website, 14 investigations are underway in relation to Scottish Ministers, including on issues such as fracking, the BBC’s role in an independent Scotland, correspondence between Princes Charles and Alex Salmond, state aid to T in the Park and lobbying.
One of the appeals is on the SNP Government proposal to push ahead with national, standardised assessments for pupils in primaries one, four and seven, and in S3.
James McEnaney, a Holyrood candidate in Glasgow for the RISE party, is the applicant and was hoping for an imminent decision.
However, an email from a staffer in the Commissioner’s office stated: “During the period between the Scottish Parliament dissolution and the election on 5 May 2016, “purdah” will apply – this is the customary practice of a period of restraint by the Government and Ministers during the election campaign.
“Although it does not affect the Scottish Information Commissioner directly, she has decided not to issue any decisions which might put forward a critical view of the Ministers.”
On McEnaney's schools appeal, the official added: “In discussion with the Head of Enforcement, it has been decided to delay the issue of the decision on your case until after 5 May 2016."
However, the SIC issued a decision in relation to Scottish Ministers during last year’s general election purdah period.
It is also understood that Kevin Dunion, the previous Commissioner, had no such policy during elections campaigns.
After being questioned about the stance, the Commissioner’s office issued clarifications to RISE saying: “Though not bound by purdah, the Commissioner must be seen to be impartial. So we're alert to the need for care, during the election period, to avoid any suggestions of bias in the issuing of decisions involving the Ministers.”
The staff member added: “In Mr McEnaney's case, we wanted to alert him to the possibility that a decision could be postponed.”
McEnaney told the Sunday Herald: "RISE is very concerned at the behaviour of the Scottish Information Commissioner and her officers.
"The most worrying aspect to all this is that on three separate occasions the SIC has confirmed to us, in writing, that she factors the risk of releasing information critical of ministers into her decision-making process.
"This is a clear breach of one of the SIC main commitments, which is to remain politically neutral at all times, not to protect Scottish Government ministers from the release of potentially sensitive or damaging information."
A spokesperson for the Commissioner said: “Although not bound by purdah, the Commissioner is mindful of the need to both be impartial and to be seen to be impartial at all times, so we are alert to the need for care during the election period to avoid any suggestions of bias in the issuing of decisions involving the Ministers.
“We consider the circumstances of each case to help us decide whether issuing it could create an impression of bias. In the rare event that issue of a decision during the election period might be viewed as less than impartial, we consider whether to postpone it."