Scottish Government accused of 'astonishing' response to routine questions linked to Alex Salmond inquiry

Nicola Sturgeon, special advisers and a host of Scottish Government communications staff were involved in an “astonishing” response to a standard media enquiry, it has emerged.

Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond are yet to give evidence to the Harassment Complaints committee.
Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond are yet to give evidence to the Harassment Complaints committee.

Correspondence, accidentally sent to Sky News, shows the internal machinations of the Scottish Government’s communications operation in response to a request for copies of versions of the ‘Fairness at Work’ code.

The code was introduced in 2010 around the time of union concerns about bullying surrounding the then-first minister Alex Salmond.

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However, the request from Sky News was passed from the communications office to special advisers and the First Minister for approval, with media officers told by special advisers to tell Sky to submit a freedom of information request for the documents.

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The communications office also drafted a list of ‘follow up questions’ and a list of agreed responses, with issues around the Complaints Against Ministers section of the code – added in 2010 uniquely by the Scottish Government – listed as a potential question.

Ms Sturgeon was given particular responsibility for that aspect of the Scottish Government’s grievance procedure in 2010.

It included a new mechanism that saw complaints able to be escalated to the permanent secretary and the deputy first minister, then Ms Sturgeon.

The documents requested were provided after Sky News had sight of the email chain.

The embarrassing gaffe in response to what should have been a simple request raises further questions around the transparency of the Scottish Government and of the First Minister in relation to the handling of harassment complaints against Mr Salmond.

It also comes on the day Mr Salmond was due to give evidence to the Holyrood inquiry, which is examining the botched handling of harassment complaints against him.

The Scottish Government was handed a £500,000 legal bill after conceding a judicial review brought by Mr Salmond on the process due to “apparent bias”.

Liberal Democrat member of the inquiry, Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP, of the Liberal Democrats, told Sky News the handling of the request would “make Vladimir Putin blush”.

He said: "The response to this routine request for a set of documents is as suspicious as it astonishing.

"Why was it subject to an elaborate process of prepared Q&As that was pored over by special advisers and had to be cleared by the first minister herself?

"It's a piece of media management that would make Vladimir Putin blush and it smells of an attempt to deflect and create a mist around what happened in 2010.

"Did Nicola Sturgeon know about concerns over bullying in Alex Salmond's office as far back as 2010? He was her close colleague and leader, you had the unions complaining and she was given a role in handling complaints against ministers.

"Did she ask why and what was going on?

"And the phrase that really jumps out is 'ministers were consulted about the change’.

"If that was the case, are we really expected to believe that Nicola Sturgeon, then deputy first minister, was not?"

Ms Sturgeon is yet to appear in front of the committee, but is expected to do so after Mr Salmond, for whom there is no agreed date of appearance.

The Scottish Government said Ms Sturgeon “looks forward to answering questions when she is invited to appear”.

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