How the Scottish Government has obstructed and denied the truth over inaccurate wind statistic

Little more than two months ago, on November 8, the Scottish Government was handed a dossier from pro-union think tank These Islands debunking the much-used claim that Scotland has a quarter of Europe’s offshore wind potential.

This claim had been repeated by senior SNP figures in the House of Commons, by MSPs in Holyrood, and by Cabinet secretaries in public and private discussions.

It was a key pillar in the Government’s argument for independence and how an independent Scotland could be one of the best placed to take advantage of the renewable energy boom and become, as former first minister Alex Salmond put it, the Saudi Arabia of renewables.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Rumours circulating Holyrood now suggest the ongoing work to replace that statistic could be a higher number and represent a larger overall potential for Scotland’s offshore resources, something that would be both welcome clarity and a serious statement of intent for Scotland’s net-zero targets.

Actually achieving the development of the amount of offshore wind set out by such a figure would be highly challenging, but with climate change pressures as serious as they are, getting close would be a boon to Scotland’s long-term energy security post-fossil fuels.

The political fallout of the debunking of the 25 per cent figure is therefore not concerned about the replacement figure, but about accountability, Government transparency, and trust in the civil service.

It is broader than claims of ‘talking down Scotland’, and instead highlights the Government’s obstructionism and failure to be honest with the public about who knew what, when.

Throughout, the Government has actively decided to avoid answering key questions on this matter and deflected by focusing on other points. It is a damning indictment on both competence and the Government’s desire to spin.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's government has faced repeated questions on when it first knew a favoured wind energy statistic was inaccurate.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's government has faced repeated questions on when it first knew a favoured wind energy statistic was inaccurate.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's government has faced repeated questions on when it first knew a favoured wind energy statistic was inaccurate.

The central question, asked first by Scottish Conservative MSP and spokesperson for net zero Liam Kerr, is when were ministers first aware they were using a figure that was not properly sourced?

This question should have a simple answer, and Government minister Lorna Slater initially provided such a simple answer. Her response to that direct question was that “ministers became aware of the issue on Tuesday, November 8 ahead of the publication of the report by These Islands”.

The problem? That is not when the Scottish Government was first aware.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Officials, as highlighted in the These Islands report, had been discussing the veracity of the claim as early as October 2020, when covering what to include in a speech set to be made by then-energy minister Paul Wheelhouse.

When this fact was first raised with the Government, it was the first time their language in responding to the question of when ministers first became aware changed. Instead of becoming aware of “the issue”, the Government now stated that it had become aware of “the report” on November 8.

These two statements are different. The latter is a non-denial denial that ministers had been aware of the figure’s misleading nature prior to November 8.

A further story later highlighted civil servants within the First Minister’s own policy unit had been aware of the issues with the figure in late September last year – a month before the admission the statistic was inaccurate.

This correspondence focused on the fact the figure had been used “without much evidence”, with that email sent on September 30.

This time the Government focused on the fact the 25 per cent figure “requires updating” and again issued a non-denial denial, stating officials discussing its use in the-then coming independence paper was “entirely consistent with the approach” it had set out.

Once another story highlighted that net zero secretary Michael Matheson had been involved in these discussions, which led to a “double-checking” of the figure, the Government reverted back to when it became aware of the These Islands report. Again, the public was left without an answer as to when ministers were first aware civil servants had concerns about the figure and its accuracy.

Then, in January, Mr Matheson slipped up, admitting to the Scottish affairs committee in Westminster he had first become aware of the statistic having problems in “September”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Scottish Government officials attempted to point at a response in his evidence where he stated Ms Slater’s figures had been “right at the time”, but ignored the fact that he immediately restated he had become aware of the issues with the figure in September.

The facts, according to Mr Matheson, were that he was aware the figure was inaccurate almost two months before the Government admitted that was indeed the case.

Asked again whether that meant Ms Slater, who said ministers were first aware of the issue on November 8, had misled Parliament, the Government issued the same, now repeated multiple times, line.

A spokesperson said: “Ministers became aware of the report by These Islands on November 8. We are now working to produce an updated figure for Scotland’s offshore wind potential, which will be published in due course.”

Earlier this week, Mr Kerr asked the Government at portfolio questions: “Can the minister tell me, when did officials first advise the Cabinet secretary [Angus Robertson] against using the 25 per cent claim on the basis that it was ‘poorly evidenced?”

In response, when questioned by this newspaper for an answer, the Government said: “Ministers became aware of the report by These Islands on November 8. We are now working to produce an updated figure for Scotland’s offshore wind potential, which will be published in due course.”

The problem with this statement is that it is at best a non-denial denial designed to deflect from the central question of who knew what, when, and at worst an outright lie. Freedom of Information (FOI) disclosures, shared with The Scotsman, prove Mr Robertson, the constitution secretary, was briefed on the issue on September 28 last year.

They also demonstrate that until this point, Mr Robertson had been pushing for the figure’s inclusion in the independence prospectus paper on the economy. The statistic appears in both a draft version of the paper and a summary version of the paper on September 15 and 23 respectively, both of which were shared with the First Minister.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The final economy paper, however, does not include the figure.

This is because, as FOI disclosures prove, Mr Robertson was advised on September 28 “the claim about 25 per cent of Europe’s offshore wind resources is poorly evidenced and has recently been the subject of several FOIs challenging the basis of this claim”. He is also told “officials would advise against using this statement”.

The exact advice provided to the minister has been withheld by the Government. However, FOI responses state a paragraph including those phrases was included in a submission from officials to Mr Robertson on September 28.

Between that advice and November 8, multiple SNP politicians used the figure in public debate, including Mr Robertson and high-profile MPs in Westminster, including in discussions with foreign diplomats.

The questions that remain are simple. Is the Scottish civil service incapable of pushing back on ministers using inaccurate, misleading figures? Why had it not provided a new figure or worked to produce one after it first recognised the figure’s shortcomings in October 2020?

And why did the Scottish Government seek to minimise, ignore and deflect when asked when ministers had first become aware of the issue and instead attempt to spin its way out of a hole?

Honesty and accountability is key to an effective political system. This debacle suggests the Scottish Government is interested in neither.

Want to hear more from The Scotsman's politics team? Check out the latest episode of our political podcast, The Steamie.

It's available wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.