Scotland politics

Minutes from first Scottish Executive cabinet meeting released

First Scottish Executive cabinet meeting in May 1999 Image copyright Ben Curtis/PA
Image caption The first Scottish Executive cabinet meeting was held at Bute House in Edinburgh on 20 May 1999

Minutes from the first-ever Scottish Executive cabinet meeting have been made available for public viewing for the first time.

Records from the meeting in Edinburgh on 20 May 1999 are among more than 13,000 files declassified under a 15-year disclosure rule.

The rule was created by the SNP government in 2009.

The first cabinet meeting took place at Labour First Minister Donald Dewar's official Bute House residence.

Among issues it addressed was the drafting of the new Scottish Ministerial Code, which regulates ministers' behaviour and responsibilities.

It also discussed the appointment of special advisers, who assist ministers with policy and communication, and relations with the UK government's Secretary of State for Scotland.

During the meeting, Mr Dewar also asked colleagues to respect the privacy of the cabinet proceedings and papers.

"Ministers should avoid giving the media any details about the proceedings of the cabinet and should refer enquirers to the official briefing in the event of their being 'doorstepped'," the minutes said.

'Lobbygate'

However, the fledgling Executive was soon embroiled in a leak inquiry and a controversy which became known as "Lobbygate".

A later cabinet minute from October 1999 states: "The First Minister referred to the unauthorised disclosure to The Scotsman of a draft of his statement to the Procedures Committee on links between ministers and lobbyists.

"He stressed that leaks were an extremely serious matter which risked undermining the effective operation of the Executive.

"The draft statement had had limited circulation and an investigation into its unauthorised disclosure was under way with external assistance.

"All ministers would be required to give details about how they had handled the paper and would be interviewed by an external investigator."

The Lobbygate investigation probed allegations that PR firm Beattie Media had special access to ministers, notably the then finance minister Jack McConnell, who went on to become first minister and now sits in the House of Lords.

'No substance'

Mr McConnell was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing but the minutes reveal the strain he was under at the time.

"The First Minister referred to the parliamentary investigation to be undertaken by the Committee on Standards into The Observer reports on the claims of Beattie Media to have special access to Scottish ministers," the October minute states.

"As he made clear to the Parliament, on the basis of the facts know (sic) to him and the assurances he had obtained from the ministerial colleagues named in the covertly filmed meeting, there was no substance in the allegations."

Cabinet papers also reveal the steps taken to plug the leaks from the early Executive after a cabinet paper found its way into the press.

Mr Dewar outlined "straightforward steps" ministers and officials could take to avoid leaks, including greater care when reading them in the public chamber and ensuring someone accompanied ministers on public transport to look after their papers.

The newly-declassified documents also reveal that Mr Dewar asked the UK government and the Monarchy to approve his rejection of early SNP calls to end the ban on Catholics acceding to the throne.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Mr Dewar asked the UK government and the Monarchy to approve his rejection of calls to end a 300-year-old ban on Catholics acceding to the throne

Scotland's inaugural first minister personally backed the campaign to reform the Act of Settlement of 1700, but feared an official disavowal by the fledgling Scottish Parliament could embarrass Tony Blair's Labour government and disrupt the peace process in Northern Ireland.

In a six-page treatise to ministers, Mr Dewar said: "My natural sympathies lie with the campaign to amend the Act of Settlement.

"It reflects the political concerns of an earlier era and it was also based on the kind of prejudice which is no longer acceptable to modern society."

But he added: "I personally think that it is important to avoid a simplistic or hasty approach in response to this campaign.

"We do not want needlessly to offend public opinion. By coming down firmly on one side or another we would risk alienating some group or groups."

Commenting on the release of the 1999 minutes, Tim Ellis, Keeper of the Records of Scotland, said: "These papers provide an interesting glimpse into the considerations of the then newly-established Scottish Cabinet.

"They add significantly to the broad range of historical records about government activities in Scotland now available to researchers."

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites