Alex Salmond case: Only reason for the Scottish Government not to publish legal advice is if they have something to hide – Murdo Fraser
Last week in this column I set out the case for the Scottish Government publishing the legal advice obtained in response to Alex Salmond’s judicial review against its complaints process.
I made the same points in last Wednesday’s debate in the Scottish Parliament, and my motion calling for publication of the advice was endorsed by MSPs by a margin of 63 votes to 54, with five SNP MSPs abstaining.
We regularly hear from SNP ministers why the will of the Scottish Parliament must be respected. One might therefore assume that they would now be seeking to comply with this parliamentary vote, and the stated view of members of the Salmond Inquiry Committee, and make the legal advice available.
But, responding to a question from my colleague Margaret Mitchell MSP at First Minister’s Questions last Thursday, Nicola Sturgeon was not so forthcoming. She stated that to publish the legal advice would be a blatant breach of the ministerial code. Once more, SNP ministers are looking to obfuscate on this issue, and not make public information that both committee members and the Scottish people have the right to see.
The First Minister’s partial quoting from the ministerial code only tells part of the story; presumably deliberately. The code does state ministers should not divulge the contents of legal advice, but there is an exception to this that “if, in exceptional circumstances, ministers feel that the balance of public interest lies in disclosing either the source or the contents of legal advice on a particular matter, the law officers must be consulted and their prior consent obtained”. Given that Parliament has spoken clearly on the issue, it would seem the balance of public interest is now entirely clear.
The Scottish Government has already published their legal advice on three occasions in relation to different matters, so a precedent exists for publication. And we are dealing here with no ordinary matter, but rather a catastrophic failure within the Scottish government that led to a pay-out from the taxpayer to the former First Minister of over £500,000 in legal expenses.
Parliament has spoken. The only reason for Scottish ministers to refuse to comply with its instruction would be if they had something to hide. Surely that cannot be the case?
Murdo Fraser is a Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife
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