On the delicate art of minute-taking

The Scottish cabinet secretary for justice, Michael Matheson, has got himself into a spot of bother over a meeting he had with the then chair of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA).

The facts are briefly these. The SPA agreed that the currently-suspended chief constable should return to work. The chief constable was informed of the decision and prepared himself for return. Meantime, the cabinet secretary seems not to have agreed with the SPA and met (summonsed?) the SPA chair to discuss his concerns. As a result, the chief constable received a further instruction, not to return to work.

This post is not about the rights and wrongs of the suspension, whether Mr Matheson exceeded his authority, or whether the SPA chair was right to overturn their previous decision. I am qualified to judge none of these things.

However, it is clear that set in the context of the numerous controversies surrounding Police Scotland and the SPA since they were both set up, there’s something significant and important going on here. Presumably the cabinet secretary thought so, otherwise why seek, whether formally or informally, to have the SPA’s decision overturned?

You might expect that, in the circumstances, those attending the meeting, whether politician/chair or civil servant/SPA official (I’m assuming one attended with the chair: it seems clear that at least one government civil servant attended) would want a record of the decision taken and why.

But yesterday, when challenged on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme, the cabinet secretary seemed unsure whether there was a minute of the meeting. As the BBC recorded it:

… he indicated that he did not know whether any minutes had been taken, and said he would need to check with officials.

A spokesman for the Scottish government later confirmed to BBC Scotland that no minutes had been taken – meaning there was no official record of what was said during the meeting.

On the face of it, this seems remarkable on such a controversial issue. I am unaware of the detailed rules that cover these sorts of meetings. The Scottish Ministerial Code states that:

the basic facts of formal meetings between Ministers and outside interest groups [should] be recorded, setting out the reasons for the meeting, the names of those attending and the interests represented (4.22).

That sounds common sense guidance for most meetings. But the chair of a public authority is hardly the representative of an outside interest group.

As a case-hardened (although now ex-) public servant I wonder if one of a number of things might be going on here.

First, there may not have been a ‘minute’ of the meeting taken. In the public sector a minute is often a formal document – the minute of a meeting of a committee, board or even the cabinet. It will be drafted by an official, perhaps reviewed for accuracy by whoever chaired the meeting, and approved as a formal record at the next meeting of the group concerned.

However, that does not mean that there is no written record in the shape of one or more informal notes of the meeting. If such document(s) exist it may well be that the government spokesman answered the BBC’s question honestly but not entirely comprehensively.

A note of meeting might be of two sorts.

In the first instance, it might have been taken by a civil servant or official attending from one side and subsequently shared with the other to ensure that both have a common understanding of what action was agreed (and clearly, however the cabinet secretary’s concerns were expressed, action was taken as a result of the meeting).

In the second instance, a note of meeting not for sharing might have been taken by either side or both. I have written these sorts of notes innumerable times – to cement the details of a meeting in my mind, to share with colleagues for information and in order that any action agreed is taken, and sometimes as a form of insurance if I had doubts about what was afoot, especially if there were any controversy likely to arise from a meeting. From the two sides of this meeting, I could easily imagine two separate private notes that read in part (hypothetically of course):

FROM THE GOVERNMENT SIDE … The cabinet secretary reminded the chair of the SPA of the wider public issues involved and invited the authority to reconsider their position

FROM THE SPA SIDE … The chair informed the cabinet secretary that he was not happy with what struck him as too detailed an involvement in an operational issue but that in view of the secretary’s insistence he would convey his views to the authority’s members for consideration.

So there may be some sort of written record of the meeting, in which case both cabinet secretary and civil service were asked the wrong question about a ‘minute’. The right question could of course still be asked or a Freedom of Information request to the same effect submitted, although I’d wager the response would come back substantially redacted.

That leaves one final possibility – that there really is no written record of the meeting. Many meetings remain unrecorded in writing, for one of two main reasons:

  1. either because a meeting is informal, routine or uncontroversial between trusted colleagues, or
  2. because there is a sensitivity about the subject matter that one party (the more powerful) wishes to leave unrecorded.

There is no way a meeting between a cabinet secretary and the chair of the SPA to overturn the authority’s decision on the chief constable’s return to work could have been routine or uncontroversial. That leaves only the possibility that someone, presumably the cabinet secretary or civil servants on his behalf, thought this was one meeting best left unrecorded. In which case it is a legitimate question to ask ‘Why?’

Unless of course the whole thing is just a simple mistake and in the rush of events everyone concerned forgot to ensure a minute or note was taken*.

* Such things happen, as those who remember the minister’s missing diaries will know.

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