Salmond inquiry: Top civil servant accused of 'evasion and secrecy'

Scotland’s most senior civil servant, Leslie Evans, has been accused of “evasion and secrecy” after telling MSPs the total cost of the government’s bungled inquiry into allegations of sexual misconduct against former First Minister Alex Salmond is impossible to estimate.

Monday, 14th September 2020, 4:45 pm
Leslie Evans, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, is pictured as she gives evidence at Holyrood to a Scottish Parliament committee examining the handling of harassment allegations against former first minister Alex Salmond.

In a letter to the Holyrood committee on Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, Ms Evans said it was “not possible to say how much was paid to lawyers or other civil servants employed by the Scottish Government” when the government was forced to defend its investigation into Mr Salmond in court.

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Her answer was strongly criticised by Scottish Labour MSP Jackie Baillie, who accused Ms Evans of “evasion and secrecy” in the latest of a series of clashes between the government and the committee over the failure to release information.

Ms Baillie said: “Another letter from the Permanent Secretary to the committee and another exercise in evasion.

“The committee and the general public deserve to know how much taxpayers’ money was frittered away on the judicial review. We know that the cost is in the hundreds of thousands but the true extent has not yet been revealed.”

She added: “The cost for external legal advice was £118,000 and that was on top of the £512,000 paid to Mr Salmond and his lawyers. It is not rocket science for the Permanent Secretary to work out the cost to the Scottish Government of the attendance of a number of civil servants at all the meetings about the judicial review.

“So far this investigation has revealed just how ingrained evasion and secrecy is in the Scottish Government. If the committee is to uncover the truth about this sorry affair then the evasion and secrecy must end.”

The government had to pay out to Mr Salmond after a Court of Session decision that its internal inquiry into harassment allegations had been unlawful and “tainted by bias”.

Ms Evan was asked about the total cost to the government of the court action at her last appearance in front of the committee and had agreed to answer in writing.

In her letter, she said: “Ms Baillie referred to the £512,000 litigation costs for the judicial review, and asked for the total cost to the Scottish Government, including in-house lawyers, civil servants and senior counsel.

"It is not possible to provide this figure. Dealing with this case was part of the normal range of duties undertaken by a number of different civil servants, including lawyers in the Scottish Government Legal Directorate. Civil servants receive a salary rather than being separately remunerated for dealing with particular matters.

"In addition, they do not record the proportion of their time that they spend working on particular matters as a matter of course. It is therefore not possible to say how much was paid to lawyers or other civil servants employed by the Scottish Government for dealing with this matter.”

The Scottish Government has been criticised by the committee for withholding legal advice it received prior and during the judicial review. Ministers have claimed that legal restrictions prevent them from doing so while Deputy First Minister John Swinney has said it would not be in the public interest to release the information.

However research revealed yesterday by the Scottish Conservatives has shown that the SNP has demanded the UK government publish legal advice eight times, and that the Scottish Government has itself released legal advice on three separate occasions.

Murdo Fraser MSP, the Tory spokesman on the committee, said: “The SNP have demanded that legal advice be published on issue after issue, only to claim it shouldn’t be published in this instance to protect the SNP from harm.

“The hypocrisy on show is indefensible. They are all for transparency until their Government has something to hide. From start to finish, the SNP has made a mockery of this inquiry by refusing to give up key documents at every turn."

The sexual harassment committee convener, SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, has also raised the fact that the government has released legal advice before, writing to Mr Swinney this week saying: “The committee fails to see how it can conduct effective scrutiny when the Scottish Government is withholding all communications about the judicial review 
proceedings”.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “The government is taking steps to enable it to provide all the relevant information requested by the committee, so far as is possible, taking account of the confidentiality, data protection and legal restrictions that apply.”

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