‘Time for a thorough review’ of transparency in wake of Scottish Enterprise secret payments, campaigners say

Campaigners say a lack of transparency on the use of taxpayers’ money fuels public distrust in institutions

AFTER REVELATIONS that Scottish Enterprise has provided almost £500,000 of funds to a company which it refuses to name due to a confidentiality agreement, transparency campaigners say it’s time for a “thorough review of what transparency actually means”.

A Sunday Mail investigation found that Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish Government’s arm’s length economic development agency, granted £475,989 of funding to a company over a three year period.

However, Scottish Enterprise said “the sensitive and confidential nature of the specific projects we are supporting” merited the agreement to secrecy in this case, and said revealing the company’s identity would “breach confidentiality and prejudice [its] commercial interests”.

Willie Sullivan, a campaigner with the Scottish Alliance on Lobbying Transparency (Salt), said the public body needed to reassess its priorities.“Commercial interests should not trump public confidence in institutions – I think the priorities are the wrong way round,” he said.

READ MORE: ‘Land Grab’: Campaigners say Scottish Enterprise have no right to sell public Loch Lomond land to developers

“How can we even begin to debate the pros and cons of corporate welfare payments unless we have full disclosure of ‘how much’ , ‘who to’ and ‘what for’ when these large sums of tax payers money are being doled out?

“Scottish Enterprise needs to open up and become accountable to those that pay their large salaries - the Scottish people.”

Sullivan said that secrecy only serves to “fuel distrust in these activities” and stressed that “openness and transparency should be the starting point of public life in Scotland”.

While Scottish Enterprise may not be required to reveal the identity of the company under Freedom of Information law, Sullivan said the body should nonetheless “act in good faith”.

The information which has now been made public was uncovered by Freedom of Information requests by The Sunday Mail.

The investigation also revealed that petrochemicals giant and fracking advocate Ineos, were given £14.1m by Scottish Enterprise from 2014-17, while Italian arms company Leonardo MW Limited received £6.3m, and Amazon received £1.7m.

READ MORE: Information Commissioner tells the Scottish Government its handling of FoI requests ‘inherently wrong’

Dr Craig Dalzell, head of research for think tank Common Weal, said there must be a greater presumption towards transparency in public institutions. “Public bodies have a duty of care to be transparent in their spending of public money and this duty of care should extend to those private companies who receive it,” he said.

“That what little we know about this deal has only come to light by a Freedom of Information request is insufficient. Transparency should not be dependent on observers being able to ask the correct questions before information is disclosed.”

In light of this, as well as “recent reports of ministerial interference in the FOI process”, Dalzell said a broader examination of public information sharing may be needed. “Perhaps it's time for a thorough review of what transparency actually means,” he said.

Dalzell added: “Information like this should be disclosed as a matter of course rather than waiting for a request for disclosure, and companies in receipt of public money should spend it as transparently as the public bodies who granted it to them.”

Cross-party opposition MSPs have called for Scottish Enterprise to reveal the name of the company which received the £475,989 sum.

Picture courtesy of Yuri Samoilov