On 5 June 2015 The Scotsman published an article entitled
Humza Yousaf: Qatar ministerial visit was omitted from official record due to clerical error.
The article concerned a ministerial visit Mr Yousaf, minister for external affairs and international development, made to Qatar in May 2013. No details of the visit were included in the Scottish Government’s list of ministerial engagements published for that month. Labour MSP Neil Findlay had called on the minister to state his activities in Qatar during the trip in May 2013 in light of ‘very serious concerns about its human rights record.’ The Scotsman article concluded
A Scottish Government spokesman last night [4 June] said the failure to state full details of Mr Yousaf’s engagements was a ‘clerical error’ and the information would be made public within the next 24 hours [my emphasis].
The information was not made available within 24 hours. Subsequently, when Neil Findlay asked the minister about the omission in parliament Yousaf replied
The Scottish Government aims to be as transparent as possible on the meetings that are undertaken by ministers. The reason given at the time of that press report absolutely stands – that there was a clerical error not just on that visit but on a number of visits, and I accept that point. Now it takes time, of course, for that clerical error to be rectified, so we will hopefully publish that updated list soon … (The Herald 17 June).
Interestingly, between the two articles the omitted visits have expanded from one to ‘a number.’
Today, 24 June and a week after the Herald article, diary details have still not been published for any of the visits. It is clear the original promise on 5 June to publish details of the May visit ‘within 24 hours’ was broken and anyone who’s still interested in the subject is left in limbo wondering how long ’soon’ is.
While I’d noticed the original ripple of controversy I didn’t expect to see it drift on. Then earlier today I saw a ‘Yes’ supporter on Twitter suggest that mislaying a ministerial diary was no more than losing something at work, which he said happens all the time. That’s true. If I had a pound for every stapler I’d mislaid over the years … . But a ministerial diary’s not quite like a stapler and the comment piqued my interest. So I thought I’d have a look around the Scottish Government web site.
The first thing to say is that, yes, the government publishes ministerial engagements, on a monthly basis three months in arrears, and very commendable that is too. You can view the whole set of engagements back to 2008 online if you wish.
It’s not clear to me exactly when the minister was in Qatar on the visit concerned although Neil Findlay (quoted in The Herald) says from 19 May. Here is Mr Yousaf’s list of ministerial engagements for that month.
So whatever the reason, and ‘clerical error’ has been cited twice, the list includes no engagements in Qatar, nor even mention of the visit itself.
If clerical error is to blame, the May 2013 visit was not the only occasion it occurred.
On 11 October he travelled to India as part of the run up to the 2014 Commonwealth Games (Scottish Government media briefing). Here is his list of engagements for that month.
Again no record of a visit, no engagements in India.
And finally, he visited the Middle East in November 2013, beginning in Abu Dhabi on 10 November (Scottish government media release) then going on to Qatar. Again the monthly list.
And again no visit, no engagements.
I haven’t looked further, either elsewhere in this minister’s list of engagements or in other ministers’. But what can we conclude from this?
First, there is no implication – from me at least – of any wrong doing. And I can see that the visits themselves are flagged up in other material on the government web site, so their existence is, quite properly, publicly known.
Second, if there was ‘clerical error’ it does seem to have been systemic, at least for much of 2013. My suspicion is that whatever was going on it was not a simple, one-off mistake and the Scottish government press people (followed by Yousaf himself) were foolish to use the phrase earlier this month. I am sure there will be at least three hard copies of any diary (the minister’s, his aide’s or whoever accompanies him on visits, and the admin staff’s in his office), as well as an electronic version. So the implication of continuing error on the part of a clerk is unworthy.
Third, and it can only be a question, was there in fact a practice of not including overseas meetings in the list of ministerial engagements, either within Mr Yousaf’s office specifically, or more generally across government? That wouldn’t be good practice and would contrast with the minutiae of domestic records (‘13 May – Glasgow Girls from Musical’). But if it happened at least it could be conceded, and an explanation or apology given, together with confirmation that the practice has ceased or will cease.
Finally, and here I must stress this is not a comment on anyone in the Scottish Government, the government publish lists of all gifts received by ministers exceeding a value of £140. This happens. You can’t stop visitors doing it. It can be a mark of friendship and respect, and the important thing is that it is transparent. Here’s the list for 2013/14.
The length of the list is modest and no doubt the value of some of these items has to be guessed (Easyjet model anyone?). But it is noticeable that three of the seven gifts received as well as by far the two most valuable are from … Qatar. Perhaps that’s just what they do and reflects their huge wealth.
So no wrongdoing but questions that need to be answered, perhaps more questions when those engagements, and I hope not just from the May 2013 visit, are made available ‘soon.’
Footnote: another and bigger question for me is why the UK government in effect allow the SNP to get away with a de facto foreign policy when external affairs are not a devolved function. I’ve touched on that before and may do so again.