Alex Salmond inquiry in fresh swipe over documents being withheld
MSPs probing the Scottish Government's handling of complaints about Alex Salmond have raised concerns that information about the “financial impact” of the botched legal case is being withheld.
The use of legal privilege to withhold some documents has been called into question by the head of the committee on the Scottish Government handling of harassment complaints.
The Scottish Government insists all relevant material has been provided to the inquiry and legal privilege is “inherent” to good government.
It was set up after ministers lost a judicial review brought by the former first minister over its handling of complaints by two civil servants - at a cost of £630,000 to taxpayers in legal fees.
The committee has already halted its proceedings amid frustration over a lack of information being provided. The latest concerns centre on evidence provided this week by senior civil servant Sarah Davidson, who revealed a report being withheld on the basis of legal privilege contained information other than just legal advice – it also covered the "financial impact" of the review.
Committee chair Linda Fabiani said in a letter to Deputy First Minister John Swinney this was significant given the need for ministers to demonstrate "value for money”.
Ms Fabiani said: "The committee finds it difficult to understand why legal professional privilege is being applied to an entire document in this way and it raises serious questions for the committee about the criteria being applied by the Scottish Government when deciding to assert legal professional privilege, including litigation privilege over entire documents or parts of documents.
"The committee therefore seeks an explanation of the criteria that is being applied."
The Scottish Government this week lost a vote in Parliament calling on ministers to release the full legal advice it received ahead of the judicial review.
Ms Fabiani also raises concerns that MSPs on the committee are discovering information in their evidence sessions about the handling of the judicial review by ministers which was not provided up front, including the practice of “daily meetings” which emerged last week.
She said: “The existence of these meetings and basic information on what was covered at each is information the committee would have expected to receive in a timeline. Instead the committee finds itself in the position where it has to extract such information to inform its scrutiny through attrition as opposed to it being pro-actively offered up by the Scottish Government.”
A Scottish Government spokesman insisted ministers are providing
all relevant material to the inquiry and will initiate legal proceedings seeking to allow the release of further documents.
He added: These are complex and sensitive matters, and everyone must act within the confidentiality and legal constraints that apply.
“We have already provided more than 1,000 pages of relevant material and Scottish Government witnesses have provided more than 14 hours of oral evidence so far.
“Successive Scottish and UK Governments have not disclosed the source or content of legal advice other than in the most exceptional circumstances.
“Legal privilege is inherent to the functioning of good government and the rule of law. It’s important that the legal advice which Ministers and their officials receive is full and frank, and not affected by concerns about it subsequently becoming public
“As the Deputy First Minister said this week, Ministers are now considering their response to the parliamentary vote this week about the release of legal advice, consistent with their obligations under the Ministerial Code. The Deputy First Minister will then update Parliament.”