Alex Salmond inquiry: Legal advice could be given to committee by Scottish Government

Legal advice on the Scottish Government’s botched handling of harassment complaints alleged against the former first minister Alex Salmond could be provided to the parliamentary inquiry after a rethink.

John Somers, Principle Private Secretary to the First Minister gives evidence to a Scottish Parliament Harassment committee, at Holyrood in Edinburgh, examining the handling of harassment allegations against former first minister Alex Salmond.
John Somers, Principle Private Secretary to the First Minister gives evidence to a Scottish Parliament Harassment committee, at Holyrood in Edinburgh, examining the handling of harassment allegations against former first minister Alex Salmond.

A letter, sent to the Salmond inquiry by Deputy First Minister John Swinney, sets out that the Scottish Government is considering a “practical way” for the committee to see the advice.

This could be as private evidence, meaning the advice would not see the light of day publicly and remain outside the remit of the committee’s final report, but no final decisions have been made.

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The change of heart from the Scottish Government comes after MSPs voted twice for the advice to be made public.

It follows what inquiry member Jackie Baillie described as a “pattern of behaviour” from the Government in obstructing the work of the committee.

The letter from Mr Swinney states: “I have discussed this issue with Cabinet colleagues this morning and I am keen to consider with you how we might establish a practical way that enables the committee to have access to the information it seeks.

"Ministers are anxious to avoid creating a precedent that will impact negatively on the future ability of Scottish Government administrations to seek and receive legal advice in confidence consistent with the long-standing principle of legal professional privilege.”

The Holyrood inquiry is examining the mishandling of complaints against Mr Salmond that led to the Scottish Government conceding a judicial review action to the cost of more than £500,000 to the public purse after the process was labelled “tainted by apparent bias”.

The latest move was cautiously welcomed by Scottish Liberal Democrat member of the committee, Alex Cole-Hamilton, who said he would wait to see the proposal and that the request was “not a negotiation”.

He said: “Parliament has supremacy over ministers and has twice expressed its view.

"A vote of Parliament is a pretty high bar to ensure this doesn’t happen all the time going forward.”

Scottish Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said it was time for Mr Swinney to stop “dragging his feet” and release the advice.

He said: “It is clear he is trying to bide for time and hoping this issue will go away.

“In the name of transparency, John Swinney must release this advice without any further delay. No ifs no buts.”

Ms Baillie, the Scottish Labour representative on the committee, added: “It is time for the government to co-operate with the committee to uphold the will of the Parliament.

“The committee’s fight for information has been obstructed at every turn, the government has maybe now realised that this information must be published. I’m glad the government has understood that it can run, but it cannot hide.”

During a marathon evidence session in Holyrood, the inquiry heard evidence from Nicola Sturgeon’s closest civil servant, her principal private secretary John Somers.

Mr Somers had, without the knowledge of those involved in the handling of complaints, had two meetings with one of the complainants – Miss A – in November 2017.

However, he denied telling anyone about the complaint aside from his line manager Barbara Allison.

Mr Somers said he did not speak to the First Minister about the meetings until June 2018, after Ms Sturgeon had meetings with Mr Salmond on the topic.

The civil servant said he was asked by Miss A whether she could have a meeting with Ms Sturgeon about the complaints, but instead pointed her in the direction of Ms Allison.

Mr Somers said he was “overwhelmed” and he had “never come across anything like this in my career”.

Asked about Ms Sturgeon’s meeting with former chief-of-staff to Mr Salmond, Geoff Aberdein, Mr Somers said he believed the meeting was never in her diary, but confirmed anything discussing government business would have to be included.

The inquiry continues.

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