WHEN Scotland has a track record of expertise in an area, you might think that a UK Government attempting to promote the Union would leap at the chance to involve its devolved ministers in a global summit on the issue.

But that was not the case with the recent high-profile artificial intelligence (AI) meeting spearheaded by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in November - instead, Scottish officials were left on read by various UK Government departments.

The Sunday National obtained a raft of emails - a whole 188 pages of them in fact - through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request that shows just how lacking engagement from the UK Government was around the summit, despite repeated requests for Scotland to be involved.

In the wake of the snub, experts insisted that Scotland could have brought a “unique perspective” to the event, as it has taken a more human-focused approach to the issue, not to mention leading research at numerous universities.

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But, the summit in Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, went ahead on November 2 without any input from Scottish or Welsh officials, the emails we obtained revealed, despite their repeated attempts to push for ministerial involvement.

There were just over 100 attendees, with Sunak and Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan attending on behalf of the UK.

It’s understood digital ministers from 28 countries attended, as well as academics and industry leaders.

Devolved administrations were invited to a “Road to Summit” event, but locked out of key discussions around the emerging technology.

The National:

Scottish Government officials lobbied for months to get an invite to the summit for Innovation Minister Richard Lochhead (above) - but were rebuked even after having to track down their own sources within the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and eventually finding out details on the UK Government’s website.

Even the director for external affairs in the Scottish Government lamented that the lack of engagement from the FCDO was “no real surprise” after the chief data officer informed him that UK officials were slow in giving a formal response to any involvement of devolved administrations.

“It’s consistent with the UK Government's approach to most events of this sort now,” director Scott Wightman told Tom Wilkinson in an exchange on October 5.

In September, an official, whose details were redacted in the FOI response, wrote to Geoff Huggins, director of the Digital Directorate, to say that the UK Government hadn’t “said a word” about the upcoming summit.

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They noted that their Welsh counterpart had been offered a meeting with UK officials on September 21. The Welsh Government requested Scotland’s presence at the meeting, with the unnamed civil servant noting they were still waiting for confirmation with 10 days to go.

“But all evidence so far points towards the UK Government not having any real interest in involving DAs, [devolved administrations] and making sure the timetable makes it impossible for DAs, ministers or senior officials to attend,” they told Huggins.

“If that situation does not improve by September 21, I plan to write a Ministerial letter.”

On September 27, Wilkinson told the Welsh Government he had been informed about the “road to the AI Safety Summit, but not from FCDO about the Summit itself”.

The National:

Both Scottish and Welsh officials were not officially excluded from the summit until October 3, and were told through an email from the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT).

“I’m looking for a route to raise an objection with [the] Cabinet Office, through our Strategy colleagues,” Wilkinson told an unnamed Welsh official.

DSIT had claimed that “due to the very restricted invite list”, ministers from devolved administrations were “not going to be invited”.

Instead, they offered the pre-summit event and a virtual call with Donelan on October 13. Despite the initial rebuke, officials still pressed for involvement in the summit, with Lochhead writing to the Foreign Secretary through official channels after the initial rebuke.

“I suspect that this will continue to be the desire, and I understand that there are ample precedents for DAs being represented in this kind of international conference,” Wilkinson wrote in an exchange on October 5.

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Civil servants were evidently dissatisfied with the pre-summit meeting, with Wilkinson writing that his department’s assessment of the event as described "is that it would be of limited value to the minister or an official”.

Scottish Government spads attempted to coordinate a joint response with the Welsh Government over the snub, which was rejected by their counterparts.

Wilkinson and a counterpart in the Welsh Government had exchanged several emails between September and October, discussing their frustration at “holding responses” from DSIT over the involvement of devolved administrations in the summit.

“We’ve noted they’ve published more details on the Summit this morning, with lots of references to ‘engagement’ (but doesn’t mention DAs anywhere),” a Welsh official wrote on September 25, linking to the UK Government’s website.

The National:

Two days later, Wilkinson revealed that he had tracked down the official leading on the summit in the Foreign Office through one of his “old contacts”, after silence through official channels over who was in charge.

“Our line would likely be that Scotland has a longer-standing AI strategy than [the] UK and its own research pedigree, justifying an independent voice,” he told an unnamed Welsh Government official.

A few hours later, the Welsh civil servant replied: “The point I emphasised was that for the UK to be a global leader in AI safety, that has to start ‘at home’ – the unique views, voices, cultures (and laws in some cases) of all four nations need to be heard first-hand at the summit.”

There was plenty of back and forth between officials in the weeks to come as they attempted to arrange a virtual meeting with Donelan and devolved ministers.

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It eventually went ahead, with a readout emailed to civil servants on October 23 revealing that the Secretary of State told ministers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that attendance at the summit is “more confined” because of the focus on “Frontier AI”.

Lochhead was the first devolved minister to speak, expressing his “disappointment” at the snub, and pointed out that while AI regulation is reserved, it impacts a number of devolved areas.

“Therefore Scotland wants to be involved from the start,” the meeting notes added.

Donelan (below) replied that the summit is “global” and not just the UK, adding she would be “happy to meet afterwards”.

The National:

Officials for the Welsh Government “expressed similar regret about not being invited”, and Northern Ireland representatives added that they had not been involved but “want to be going forward”.

Despite this joint approach and appeals to Donelan, UK ministers didn’t budge on allowing devolved ministers to attend.

Lochhead told the Sunday National that Scotland’s exclusion from the summit was “disappointing and illogical”.

“Scotland continues to play an internationally recognised, leading role in AI research and development, while our National AI Strategy pre-dates that of the UK’s,” he said.

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“Scotland should have had the opportunity to make a valuable direct contribution to this global conversation.”

A UK Government spokesperson said that Donelan and ministers who attended “agreed to maintain a regular dialogue on AI policy”.

“We recognise the pace of change and will continue to work closely with the devolved administrations, leading experts, regulators, and industry to understand emerging risks and opportunities to ensure they are properly addressed,” they added.