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Nicola Sturgeon accuses opposition of prejudging outcome of inquiries

Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent
·7 min read

Nicola Sturgeon has said she will “get on with the job” of steering Scotland out of the coronavirus pandemic, as she accused opposition parties of prejudging the outcome of inquiries into her and her government’s conduct in relation to the investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond.

During angry exchanges at first minister’s questions on Thursday, Sturgeon told Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives’ leader in Holyrood: “I’m going to get on with the job I suspect most people watching at home right now want me to get on with, which is leading this country through and out of a pandemic.”

Related: What impact is the Salmond saga having on the drive for independence?

A day after her marathon eight-hour evidence session at the Scottish parliament, for the Holyrood inquiry, which is examining the government’s handling of the original complaints by two female civil servants, Sturgeon was challenged by opposition leaders about the last-minute release of the legal advice to the committee.

Despite two votes in parliament, the legal advice given to the Scottish government about Salmond’s judicial review of the process, which it lost at a cost of more than £600,000 to taxpayers, was only released to the committee the day before Sturgeon’s evidence, after the Scottish Conservatives threatened a no-confidence vote in the deputy first minister, John Swinney.

Later on Thursday, Swinney published a further set of documents, but the Scottish Conservatives’ leader, Douglas Ross, said the limited release fell “far short of the demands of the Scottish parliament and of the Salmond inquiry”.

What is the Salmond controversy about?

In August 2018, news leaked the Scottish government had investigated two allegations of sexual misconduct against Alex Salmond while he was first minister. Salmond denied the allegations, resigned from the Scottish National party, and immediately took the Scottish government to court, accusing it of abuse of process.

In January 2019, the court of session in Edinburgh ruled the government inquiry was unlawful because the lead investigator had had prior contact with the complainers. Leslie Evans, the permanent secretary, admitted it was “tainted by apparent bias”.

What happened next?

Nicola Sturgeon admitted she spoke to Salmond about the government inquiry five times while it was under way. She failed to tell Evans she had done so until hours before her third conversation. She also failed to tell parliament she had met one of Salmond’s former aides in her Holyrood office when she is said to have been first told he was under investigation – another potential breach of the code.

Several investigations were launched: Sturgeon referred herself under the ministerial code and the case was passed to James Hamilton, a former director of public prosecutions in Ireland; the Scottish parliament appointed a special committee to investigate the government’s handling of the inquiry and Sturgeon’s actions; and the government set up an internal review.

What happened at the Salmond trial?

In March 2020 Salmond was cleared of 14 charges – an attempted rape, one intent to rape, 11 sexual assaults and two indecent assaults, against 10 women. One charge was dropped by the crown; the jury acquitted Salmond of all the others on majority verdicts.

Salmond admitted in evidence he had an extramarital “sexual liaison” with one of the complainers, and a “sleepy cuddle” with another for which he soon apologised to her. It emerged during the trial a number of civil servants heard of two alleged incidents after the women involved told close colleagues. Once the trial ended, the Scottish parliament inquiry began to gather evidence.

What has happened with the two remaining inquiries?

The Holyrood inquiry has held 11 oral evidence sessions, given under oath, including several with Evans, the senior civil servants involved in drafting the sexual harassment policy used to investigate Salmond, and the officials who carried out the inquiry. MSPs heard that officials were aware of unspecified rumours about Salmond, including alleged bullying.

The government has released thousands of pages of evidence but MSPs have repeatedly accused ministers of breaching promises to do so quickly. After ministers repeatedly refused to release their legal advice on the Salmond case, Holyrood voted twice to insist it was handed over. The government has not given way, and the committee has only been allowed to see a summary of the advice.

Severin Carrell Scotland editor

The no-confidence motion in Swinney remains live, as does one that the Tories have also threatened against Sturgeon.

The latest legal advice appears to contradict Salmond’s allegation that the government was considering the sisting (suspending) of the judicial review to allow the criminal case to overtake it because minsters were worried about a humiliating defeat. The documents show that the lord advocate advised in September 2018 that using reporting restrictions was preferable to sisting.

Swinney said: “This puts beyond any doubt that there was any attempt to delay the judicial review so that it would be overtaken by criminal proceedings.”

But a spokesperson for Salmond said that he had not argued that the lord advocate was involved in accelerating the criminal case, but rather special advisers and SNP officials. He said: “John Swinney must now be the only person in Scotland who believes that the piecemeal release of these extraordinary legal documents have done anything other than demolish the government’s pretence that they were not warned months in advance that they were on course to lose the judicial review.”

During the tense session in the chamber earlier on Thursday, Davidson asked Sturgeon why her government had continued to “defend the indefensible” when government lawyers had expressed significant concerns about the case.

The papers released on Tuesday evening contained the revelation that Roddy Dunlop QC, one of Scotland’s leading lawyers, who was the government’s external counsel, had been furious that government officials had failed to disclose critical evidence about the prior contact of the investigating officer with the two complainants.

Sturgeon said that, as she had stated in her evidence on Wednesday, there was “no question” that the case should be dropped until this new evidence emerged, and that the government was acting in accordance with the views of the law officers at the time.

She said: “I answered questions for eight hours yesterday, I answered every question that was put to me and I intend to rest on that to allow both the committee and the inquiry into the ministerial code to conclude their work.”

In addition to the Holyrood committee’s inquiry, there is a separate independent investigation by James Hamilton, a former director of public prosecutions for Ireland, into whether Sturgeon broke the ministerial code by misleading parliament over meetings with Salmond to discuss the allegations.

Davidson said MSPs had “every right to question a first minister who is the head of a government that failed these two women”.

She added: “I want everyone to understand how incompetent and secretive this government is. Because of legal advice that had to be dragged from this government under the threat of a vote of no confidence we know that for weeks this government were definitively, without any doubt, ignoring legal advice.”

After Davidson accused her of breaking the ministerial code, Sturgeon hit back that the Tory MSP had “just shown her true colours all over again”.

“Just as on Tuesday night the Conservatives prejudged my evidence to the parliamentary inquiry, she’s just prejudged the outcome of the independent inquiry into the ministerial code. This is just about desperate political games for the Conservatives.”

The newly elected Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, said the exchanges between Sturgeon and Davidson “represent the worst of our politics”, but went on to press the first minister on the same subject, asking why it took the threat of a no-confidence vote for the government to act.

Sturgeon also promised Sarwar that she would release the Hamilton report on whether she breached the ministerial code on the same day that she received it.

The SNP confirmed that it had acquired 5,000 new members over the past 24 hours since Sturgeon gave her evidence. The most recently available figure put the party’s total membership at 124,000 as of October 2020.