Nicola Sturgeon evidence not yet seen by Alex Salmond inquiry

A “substantial amount” of written evidence supplied to Holyrood’s Salmond inquiry by Nicola Sturgeon has not yet been seen by MSPs, because it requires redacting to avoid “jigsaw identification" of the women who had alleged sexual harassment by the former First Minister.

Thursday, 1st October 2020, 1:22 pm
Updated Thursday, 1st October 2020, 5:39 pm
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon alongside Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government Leslie Evans.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon alongside Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government Leslie Evans.

Under pressure at First Minister's Questions from Ruth Davidson over complaints by the committee regarding a lack of evidence supplied by the Scottish Government on its handling of sexual harassment complaints against Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon said she had supplied personal evidence to the inquiry two months ago, but could not be held responsible for the fact it has not yet been published.

The First Minister was grilled on claims the Scottish Government was “obstructing” the investigation by failing to hand over legal documents involved in the judicial review case to the committee – which has now written to the Scottish Courts for access to the restricted files.

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But The Scotsman understands her own evidence is being subject to redactions to avoid “jigsaw identification" of any of the complainers.

In a fiery exchange between Ms Sturgeon and the Scottish Tory Holyrood group leader, the rising tensions between the Scottish Government and the inquiry were laid bare – underlined by a letter Deputy First Minister John Swinney sent to the committee criticising a difference in the “tone and substance” within its letters to the government and to the Scottish Courts, requesting access to the legal documents.

In Holyrood, Ms Davidson demanded to know why Ms Sturgeon had “broken her word” after a commitment made in January last year the inquiry could "request whatever material they want... and we will provide whatever material they request".

Ms Sturgeon said the only material not supplied to the inquiry by the government was when “there are legal reasons that cannot be provided” and stressed there had been “over 1,000 pages of material made available and officials have given over 10 hours of evidence so far”.

She said: “I have recused myself from decision making over the Scottish Government decisions and the reason for that is simple and absolutely right – part of the remit of this committee is looking at my conduct and I think it would be wrong if I was making decisions about the content of government submissions.

“The committee has for two months been in possession of a substantial amount of written evidence from me personally, which has not been published and that's entirely the committee’s decision, but it's galling for me to hear that somehow I’m not answering questions.

"I also stand ready to give oral evidence at any time the committee chooses to call me, I’ve not yet been invited."

However, Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton revealed that committee members had yet to see Ms Sturgeon’s evidence. On Twitter, he posted: “She has submitted written evidence, but we STILL haven’t seen it. Apparently to be included with other submissions.”

According to the committee’s statement on the handling of evidence and submissions, while parliamentary committees generally publish all written evidence unless there are legal reasons not to do so, there were "additional considerations” to take into account.

The statement says: “The committee will redact personal or other identifying information in material it publishes where it considers it necessary to do so to comply with the Court Order (particularly in relation to jigsaw identification and data protection requirements). The committee will publish documents as packages, after making necessary redactions, rather than individually as they are received, to avoid accidentally increasing the risk of jigsaw identification.”

The Scotsman understands all evidence to the committee inquiry is being checked in this manner and redaction of documents is “a lengthy process”.

At FMQs, Ms Sturgeon was also asked to confirm that WhatsApp messages, which appeared to come from her husband Peter Murrell, who is chief executive of the SNP, suggesting he wanted Mr Salmond to be investigated by the Metropolitan Police and Crown Office were genuine.

Ms Davidson said the messages included Mr Murrell purportedly saying it was a “good time to be pressurising” police and “the more fronts he [Mr Salmond] is having to fire-fight on, the better for all complainers”.

Ms Sturgeon said the leak of the messages was the subject of a police inquiry. She said: “I don’t think it is reasonable for me to be asked questions about things that other people might or might not have done. Call the people who the messages are purported to come from and ask them the questions. Call me and I will answer for myself.

“The committee can convene this afternoon and I will answer for my conduct. It's outrageous that I’m in a position where I've given evidence two months ago, when I’ve not yet been invited to give evidence, yet I'm somehow being accused of not being prepared to answer questions and to answer on behalf of other people.”

She also said the messages had been “leaked as soon as they were passed to the committee”.

As a result, Mr Cole-Hamilton raised a point of order in the Chamber, demanding the First Minister correct the official record or “present evidence to parliament to substantiate her claim" which he said was “a serious allegation” and “untrue”.

He said: “The first committee members learned of the messages was in an email from clerks to which were attached images of the messages from which I quote: ‘we are now aware that details of the contents of these messages have also been given to the media, so we wanted to ensure that members were sighted on this before reading about it in the media.”

Presiding Officer Ken Mackintosh said it was “not a procedural point for me to rule on”, but Mr Cole-Hamilton’s “point is on the record”.

Ms Davidson said the Salmond inquiry had uncovered a “shabby abuse of power”.

She said: "We have the head of the civil service having to be recalled because she can’t remember or won't answer key questions; a tranche of emails related to the inquiry deleted; hearings having to be suspended because they can't continue due to obstruction; and a committee chair having to write to the courts to get information the First Minister 18 months ago said she would provide.

"Two years ago Nicola Sturgeon told the media ‘I relish the prospect of answering all and every question’, so when she’ going to start?”

Ms Sturgeon said: “I’ve not been invited to give evidence. I'll turn up next week and give evidence if the committee invites me. I cannot be held responsible for the fact the committee hasn't published my evidence. It can call me any time it likes. I am trying to respect the process. I will turn up and give evidence – it hasn’t yet asked me to do so.”

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