Slip slidin’ away

Just two days ago the Electoral Commission gave us a fourth supposed date for the publication of the SNP’s 2019 accounts: having first been due out in early August, they then told us to expect them in early September, and then last week, and then in “the next three weeks”, ie the middle of October.

But someone gave us a tipoff that we might be able to request them via Freedom Of Information, since ostensibly the only holdup was that the EC wanted to wait until ALL of the main parties’ accounts were ready and publish them all at once for tidiness.

So we sent one in, and we just got a very quick reply.

We’ve highlighted the key bits.

“Dear Stuart Campbell

Our Ref: FOI 116-20

Thank you for your email to the Electoral Commission dated 23/09/2020.

The Commission aims to respond to requests for information promptly and has done so within the statutory timeframe of twenty working days.

Your request is below followed by our response.

I request any information the Electoral Commission holds with regards to the Scottish National Party’s accounts (central party) for the year to 31 December 2019. I believe these are public documents and as such do NOT require to be withheld until such times as the Commission is publishing the accounts of other parties.

Our response is as follows:

Each year, registered political parties are required to submit a statement of accounts. Additionally, registered accounting units of central parties, with a total income or expenditure over £25,000 are also required to submit accounts. Parties and accounting units with a total income or expenditure of £250,000 or under must submit within four months of their year-end. Those with a total income or expenditure of over £250,000 must submit within six months and seven days of their year-end. As the majority of parties, including the SNP, have a year end of 31 December, the deadlines for the 2019 accounts were 30 April 2020 and 07 July 2020.

The Commission is required to publish this information as soon as is reasonably practicable. The restrictions imposed in response to COVID-19 caused many parties to miss the deadline meaning that the publication of the 2019 accounts has been delayed.

Though we hold the information you have requested, we are unable to release it at this time.

Section 22 of the Freedom of Information Act provides an exemption for information that is intended to be published in the future. Information is exempt if, at the time when the public authority receives a request for it:

· the public authority holds the requested information;

· the public authority intends the information to be published at some future date, whether that date is determined or not;

· and in all the circumstances it is reasonable to withhold the information until its planned publication.

The Commission holds the requested information and we intend to publish it shortly along the annual accounts of other registered parties in the over £250,000 category. We have not yet set a date for this publication though we intend to publish here on our website early November. You will notice that the accounts of all parties with an income or expenditure of £250,000 or under and their relevant accounting units have already been published.

Section 22 is a qualified exemption and therefore requires us to consider if the public interest outweighs the use of the exemption.

We understand the importance of being transparent and open with the general public and note that the information requested is of public interest. However, releasing this information early may cause further delays to the publication process of all accounts that we hold. This would impact our ability to ensure the transparency of accounts submitted by all other parties in the over £250,000 category.

I trust that this information satisfies your request. The Commission strives to be an open, transparent authority, but in some circumstances we cannot responsibly release requested information, and we ask for your understanding in this regard.

If you are not satisfied with this response, please note that the Commission operates a review procedure, details of which can be found on the Commission website.

Please also note that if you have exhausted all internal Commission review procedures and you are still not satisfied you have the right to appeal to the Information Commissioner. Details of this procedure can be found on the ICO website.

Yours sincerely,

Information Team

The Electoral Commission
electoralcommission.org.uk”

So we’ve now gone from August to September to October to November – and even November isn’t a set date, just an aspiration.

The bottom line is the Commission admits that it’s holding the accounts – which have been the subject of considerable speculation that they might reveal a serious fraud and as such are clearly in the public interest – but is refusing to release them. At this rate it looks like it could be 2021 before we get to see the accounts for 2019 and find out what happened to all those hundreds of thousands of pounds the SNP raised for an independence referendum it looks increasingly disinclined to even try to achieve.

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