Alex Salmond inquiry: Lawyer claims committee inquiry set up to fail

A former honorary professor of criminal law at Glasgow University has claimed the Scottish Government is “frightened the truth might emerge” and has hampered the work of the parliamentary inquiry into its botched handling of sexual harassment allegations against former first minister Alex Salmond.

Alex Salmond speaking outside the Court of Session in Edinburgh. Picture Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Alex Salmond speaking outside the Court of Session in Edinburgh. Picture Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Alistair Bonnington, who taught Nicola Sturgeon as a law student, has written in Scottish Legal News, claiming there is an “underlying intention” within the government that the inquiry “will be unable to say very much about anything because it will never see the most telling pieces of evidence”.

He also casts doubt on the Scottish Government's claim that it is unable to release legal advice it received about the judicial review into its actions, which it ultimately lost at a cost of more than £500,000.

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Further, Mr Bonnington says that without counsel or legal advice, the committee inquiry has “no chance of digging to the bottom of this murky affair” and as a result, “there is strong suspicion that this committee was given the job precisely because it would have insufficient expertise or powers to investigate adequately”.

He also heavily criticises government witnesses who have given evidence, suggesting that in a court of law some may have faced charges of perjury.

Mr Bonnington adds: “The fact that people in very senior positions are advancing at best amnesia and at worst idiocy as explanations for their failure to tell the whole truth makes one wonder if we have in Scotland a ‘team of total diddies’ at the top.

“The discovery that £50,000 of public money was spent by the Scottish Government on ‘coaching’ these witnesses before they appeared before the committee is hugely suspicious. I am sure there must be a better phrase than ‘training for lying’ to describe this, but at the moment I can’t think of it.”

Just yesterday Scottish Labour MSP on the committee, Jackie Baillie, said SNP chief executive, and Nicola Sturgeon's husband, Peter Murrell, should face a Crown Office investigation into whether or not he perjured himself in front of the inquiry.

However, Mr Bonnington trains most of his criticism on the failure of the Scottish Government to release legal advice – despite the Scottish Parliament voting for it to do so.

He says: “To us lawyers, of course, the most absurd aspect has been the claim from Ms Sturgeon and her deputy John Swinney that it is impossible for them to afford the committee sight of the legal advice given to the Scottish Government in respect of the Salmond matters.

"It is confidential and so can’t be divulged, they protest. What utter nonsense. They, the Scottish Government, are the client and can waive the privilege attached to the legal advice whenever they chose.

“Another odd part of these proceedings is the legal approach taken by James Wolffe, the Lord Advocate. He has appeared in front of the committee and made the assertion that for anyone to produce the documentary productions (originals or copies) from Mr Salmond’s criminal trial would amount to a crime and they would be prosecuted for so doing.

“Now I would not pretend to have anywhere near the erudition of Mr Wolffe, but I have never heard of such a rule of law.

"The criminal trial is completed and can’t be reopened. What possible crime can be committed by a legitimately constituted Parliamentary inquiry seeing these documents, which on any view, not just Mr Salmond’s, must be pertinent to the work of the committee?”

The inquiry last week wrote to the Crown Office demanding the release of more information, invoking the never-before-used section 23 powers of Holyrood committees.

However, a Scottish Government spokesperson denied Mr Bonnington's allegations.

The spokesperson said: “It is completely untrue that Scottish Government witnesses have been coached.

“In line with the Scottish Government’s commitment to co-operate fully with the committee, civil servants have prepared for and provided over 21 hours of oral evidence on complex and historical events, in line with the data protection, confidentiality and legal restrictions that apply.

“Scottish Government witnesses are providing evidence to the best of their knowledge of behalf of ministers. However, they are also giving their own recollections, under oath, of complex events that took place some time ago.

“Where further information or clarification has been required, we have followed up quickly in writing, including to correct inaccurate assertions by some committee members. This process is normal practice during Parliamentary inquiries.”

But Scottish Liberal Democrat committee representative Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “Being forced to play whack-a-mole with witnesses who tell us one thing, only for this later to be proven false, has been a source of unending frustration for the committee.

"The inquiry will continue to press Nicola Sturgeon, Peter Murrell and others to tell us what they know, but from the level of co-operation so far, the public would be entitled to conclude that they have no intention of being open and honest about this sorry affair.”

Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Conservative MSP on the committee added: “Nicola Sturgeon’s former law professor hits the nail on the head about how the SNP government has disgracefully tried to obstruct and block the work of the committee at every turn.

“It is clear that that the First Minister and others at the heart of the SNP are afraid of the truth emerging about what they knew and when in relation to the former first minister.

“By continuing to ignore the will of the Scottish Parliament in refusing to release their legal advice, they continue to show their complete contempt for the committee’s work. The SNP need to start being open and transparent if the public are to ever find out the whole truth about this case.”

Scottish Labour's interim leader Jackie Baillie said: “This is a scathing criticism of the Scottish Government’s conduct from an expert who taught the First Minister herself.

“The fact of the matter is that you do not need to be a legal expert like Alistair Bonnington to see the secrecy and bad faith with which the Scottish Government has approached this matter.

“Frankly, this fiasco is deeply dispiriting and is an embarrassment for the whole country. It would appear that the secrecy and obstruction by the Scottish Government knows no bounds.”

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