MSPs voice fury today after it emerged Nicola Sturgeon could ‘dodge’ questions about crucial legal advice at her crunch committee hearing on the Alex Salmond row.
The First Minister is finally set to be grilled by the inquiry tomorrow, but her deputy John Swinney has been accused of treating Holyrood with ‘contempt’ by dragging his heels about handing over key documents.
Mr Swinney has admitted that lawyers had ‘reservations’ about continuing to resist a judicial review brought by Mr Salmond in 2018 over the handling of complaints against him.
However, he insisted that legal advice will show there were ‘good public policy arguments and reasonable grounds’ for continuing the wrangling – which eventually resulted in Mr Salmond being awarded more than £500,000.
Details of the advice had been expected to be made public today, after the Scottish government’s hand was forced by the Opposition.
But Mr Swinney is only handing it to the committee this afternoon and it is unlikely to be made public until tomorrow. There have been allegations that failing to heed the opinions of lawyers would have amounted to a breach of the ministerial code.
Scots Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said: ‘John Swinney’s response to the Scottish Parliament’s requests for the legal advice have been a disgrace from start to finish.
‘He is showing contempt for the inquiry committee and the entire Parliament.
‘The Deputy First Minister grandstanded about finally providing hand-picked parts of the legal advice, overlooking that he only acted when his job was on the line.
‘Whatever he provides may not even be published before the First Minister’s evidence session, allowing her to avoid questions on it and dodge scrutiny yet again.
‘The Scottish Conservatives will hold a No Confidence vote in the Deputy First Minister this Thursday if he has not respected the will of Parliament by then.’
Giving evidence to a Holyrood committee today, James Wolffe QC (left) said he had recused himself from key decisions over the handling of allegations against Alex Salmond. John Swinney (right) has been accused of dragging his heels over releasing the legal advice
In six hours of brutal testimony last week, Alex Salmond laid out a case that senior SNP figures conspired to try to force him out of public life over harassment claims
Mr Wolffe is facing a grilling on the eve of the long-awaited appearance by Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon (left) has denied breaking the ministerial code and said she will give her full rebuttal tomorrow. The Conservative dossier (right) highlights dozens of instances when Ms Sturgeon appears to have broken the ministerial code
What are the key issues in the row engulfing SNP?
How and why did the Scottish government mishandle allegations against Alex Salmond?
The Scottish government launched an investigation in 2017 after two women made formal complaints against Alex Salmond.
He launched legal action against the government’s handling of the investigation and won a judicial review in January 2019, receiving £512,000 to cover his legal fees.
The parliamentary inquiry is examining how ministers and civil servants conducted the probe.
Mr Salmond was charged with 13 counts of sexual assault, including attempted rape, but was acquitted of all charges in March 2020.
Mr Salmond has claimed he was the victim of a conspiracy by senior SNP figures to end his role in public life.
What did Nicola Sturgeon know and when?
Ms Sturgeon originally told MSPs she learned of complaints against Mr Salmond on April 2, 2018, when the pair met at her house.
That meeting is crucial as it is unclear whether it was SNP business, or government business – which should have been officially recorded.
Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the SNP and Ms Sturgeon’s husband, initially said he was not at home, but later revealed that he arrived home during the discussion.
He insists he did not ask what they were talking about.
Ms Sturgeon has also admitted she ‘forgot’ about a discussion with Mr Salmond’s ex-chief of staff four days earlier where they talked about the issue.
The ministerial code says that ‘ministers who knowingly mislead the parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the First Minister’.
Ms Sturgeon is facing a separate independent investigation led by James Hamilton, who has to decide if she broke the ministerial code. However, it is thought that she is the final arbiter of whether the code has been breached.
Does Mr Salmond have evidence of a conspiracy against him?
Mr Salmond has said he is the victim of a ‘prolonged, malicious’ conspiracy by senior SNP and government figures.
He has suggested Mr Murrell was part of efforts to damage him.
Ms Sturgeon has demanded he presents hard evidence that is the case. However, he insisted today that he is not in the dock and the government has already conceded it acted illegally.
Why was Mr Salmond’s evidence to the inquiry redacted?
Mr Salmond’s submission to the inquiry was released online on Monday, but the Crown Office raised concerns with Holyrood about it, asking for redactions.
He has raised questions about why the step was taken and whether it amounted to inappropriate interference.
Mr Swinney’s defence came in a letter to the Holyrood committee of inquiry ahead of its long-awaited session with Ms Sturgeon tomorrow.
In six hours of brutal testimony last week, Mr Salmond laid out a case that senior SNP figures conspired to try to force him out of public life over harassment claims. He was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing in a trial.
He also vented fury that the Crown Office, led by Lord Advocate James Wolffe, had forced the redaction of sections of his written evidence to the committee.
Mr Wolffe today dismissed claims of interference in the Alex Salmond probe as ‘wholly without foundation’.
Giving evidence to the inquiry he said he had recused himself from key decisions over the allegations against the former First Minister.
And he flatly rejected that idea that the Crown Office had insisted on the redaction of parts of Mr Salmond’s written evidence in a bid to hamper the process.
Mr Wolffe said: ‘Any suggestion, from any quarter, that the Crown’s decision-making has at any time been influenced by irrelevant considerations or improper motivations would be wholly without foundation.
‘Insinuation and assertions to the contrary are baseless.’
He said the crown had been criticised for ‘actions it has taken to protect the identity of the complainers’ at Alex Salmond’s criminal trial, at which he was acquitted of all charges.
The legal advice received by the Scottish government over Mr Salmond’s judicial review of its complaints procedure is due to be published after ministers caved in.
Mr Wolffe suggested he had not been asked whether the advice could be released until yesterday, as ministers had not believed the ‘public interest’ favoured its disclosure until then.
The Scottish Tories have accused Ms Sturgeon of breaching the ministerial code up to 38 times during the row.
A Conservative dossier highlights dozens of instances when they say Ms Sturgeon appears to have broken the ministerial code.
They include accusations of repeatedly misleading the Scottish Parliament about when she first knew of the allegations against Mr Salmond, delaying settling the judicial review despite legal advice, and meeting Mr Salmond on government business without any officials present or records being taken.
Ms Sturgeon has denied breaking the ministerial code and said she will give her full rebuttal tomorrow.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: ‘This dossier shows all the evidence of SNP cover ups, dreadful mistakes and terrible lapses of judgement.
‘Sleaze and secrecy is running rampant throughout the ruling party of government.
‘Nicola Sturgeon stands accused of breaking the Ministerial Code up to 38 times. The First Minister and her inner circle are facing 14 separate resignation matters.
‘The weight of evidence is overwhelming – and this is only what we know about. So much more continues to be hidden by the SNP.
‘The First Minister has abused the power of her office and government to cover up what really happened, what she knew and when she knew it.’
The burgeoning row is threatening to derail Ms Sturgeon’s push to split up the UK, with support for independence diving over recent weeks.
Scotland’s Deputy First Minister John Swinney is today finally set to release the legal advice the government was given over the judicial review, after a dramatic U-turn in the face of a no-confidence motion.
The advice relates to Mr Salmond’s successful legal challenge of the Scottish Government’s harassment complaints procedure, which led to him being awarded more than £500,000.
In a letter to the committee this morning, Mr Swinney said details of the legal advice would be released this afternoon – and they show ‘reservations’ about proceeding with the case.
‘The documents confirm that, whilst reservations were raised about the judicial review following the identification of the issue of prior contact with the complainers in late October, there were good public policy arguments and reasonable grounds for the Government to continue to defend the judicial review and to seek a determination from the Court on the matters raised, until the events of late December 2018,’ he wrote.
The Scottish Tories submitted a motion of no confidence in Mr Swinney at Holyrood yesterday after accusing him of failing to comply with two parliamentary votes calling for the publication of legal advice.
Tory whip Miles Brigg MSP said he will not withdraw the Motion of No Confidence until MSPs are given assurances that SNP Ministers will deliver everything the committee has requested.
Mr Salmond insisted last week that, if the case was pursued by Ms Sturgeon against legal advice, it would be a breach of the ministerial code.
Mr Swinney said: ‘In normal circumstances, government legal advice is not released. Indeed, such is the importance of being able to get frank, private advice, it is almost unheard of for the legal advice to be released.
‘But, we have to acknowledge that the issues at stake now are not normal. The very integrity of the legal system is being questioned.
The dossier’s allegations about Ms Sturgeon include repeatedly misleading the Scottish Parliament about when she first knew of the allegations against Mr Salmond, delaying settling the judicial review despite legal advice, and meeting Mr Salmond on government business without any officials present or records being taken
Scottish Tories accuse SNP of deliberately fixing Sturgeon’s committee grilling for same day as the Budget
The Scottish Tories have accused the SNP of trying to protect Nicola Sturgeon by fixing her committee grilling for the same day as the Budget.
The First Minister is finally set to give her testimony at Holyrood tomorrow – with her career on the line.
But the showdown could be overshadowed with Rishi Sunak delivering his historic post-Covid Budget on the same day.
A Scottish Tory spokesman said: ‘The timing of this appearance is certainly very convenient for Nicola Sturgeon.
‘During Alex Salmond’s evidence last week, the SNP MSPs on the committee embarrassed themselves by trying to run out the clock. It was a hopeless filibuster attempt that failed.
‘Now they’re clearly trying to give their boss a helping hand by limiting when and how long she appears before the committee.
‘At every turn the SNP are trying to shut down scrutiny and cover up what really happened in this sorry affair.’
‘Serious allegations have been made. This material allows people to confirm that these allegations are false.
‘We have already shared in private with the Scottish Parliament’s committee on these issues the substance of the advice.
‘Now, we recognise that in order to counter to the false claims being made by some, we must go further. Subject to the mandatory legal checks and processes, we will release the key legal advice.’
It would have been the second time in less than a year that Mr Swinney faced a debate on his position after he survived a no-confidence in August thanks to the Scottish Greens. This time they had signalled they would vote against him.
The Scottish parliament has twice voted to compel the release of the advice ministers and officials obtained during the judicial review brought about by the former SNP leader.
However, they have previously refused to do so, citing legal privilege. In January 2019, the Government was forced to admit it had acted unlawfully and its investigation had been ‘tainted by apparent bias’ after Mr Salmond successfully challenged its investigation into complaints against him.
The outcome of the probe was set aside when it emerged that the investigating officer had prior contact with two women who made allegations against Mr Salmond.
It was previously revealed that the issue had been identified months before the Government conceded.
But the inquiry is keen to know when ministers and officials were advised to drop their defence – and admit defeat.
Mr Swinney’s decision has received the prior agreement of the Law Officers in line with paragraph 2.40 of the Scottish Ministerial Code.
Ahead of release, under the General Data Protection Regulation, legal notifications to individuals impacted are required.
The Scottish Government said that these are expected to be complete and, subject to them, the Parliament will receive the material immediately thereafter.