The Scottish Government is facing fresh secrecy claims after it failed to provide any information about a crucial meeting where Nicola Sturgeon was told about harassment claims against Alex Salmond.
The SNP administration was accused of showing contempt for the Holyrood inquiry into the Salmond saga after repeated questioning about the meeting between the first minister and Geoff Aberdein.
During Mr Salmond’s criminal trial, it emerged that Mr Aberdein, his former chief of staff, met Ms Sturgeon on March 29 2018 in the Scottish Parliament.
Ms Sturgeon failed to mention the Aberdein meeting in January 2019 when she told Holyrood that she first learned of claims against Mr Salmond when the former first minister visited her family home on April 2 2018.
Subsequently, Ms Sturgeon has submitted evidence to the Salmond inquiry suggesting she had forgotten about the Aberdein meeting when she made her statement to MSPs in January 2019.
In her evidence Ms Sturgeon said she thought the discussion with Mr Aberdein “might relate to matters of a sexual nature”. Her submission led to her opponents renewing their accusations that she had misled parliament on the matter.
This is symbolic of the obstruction that the committee has faced and the toxic political culture that the SNP government has created and nurtured. Try as they might, the truth will out and I will use everything at my disposal to ensure that this sordid episode in Scottish political history is exposed.”
Labour MSP Jackie Baillie
‘The truth will out’
Labour MSP Jackie Baillie tabled a series of questions at Holyrood seeking to find out more about the meeting, including its purpose, when it was put in the ministerial diary and whether it was removed from the ministerial diary.
Ms Baillie said: “This is just the latest example of the pervasive culture of secrecy in the Scottish Government and the lengths to which they will go to protect the reputation of the First Minister.
“By failing to answer these legitimate and necessary questions, the Scottish Government has displayed a contempt for transparency and utter disdain for the work of the committee.
“This is symbolic of the obstruction that the committee has faced and the toxic political culture that the SNP government has created and nurtured.
“Try as they might, the truth will out and I will use everything at my disposal to ensure that this sordid episode in Scottish political history is exposed.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The First Minister has already set out in some detail the circumstances of her meeting with Mr Aberdein as part of her personal evidence to the committee. Ms Baillie has this and it has been published.”
Convener ‘beyond frustration’ over lack of information
Ms Baillie mounted her attack as the Salmond inquiry convener, Linda Fabiani MSP, demanded an end to “disrespectful” delays in receiving evidence from both the Scottish Government and the former first minister.
Ms Fabiani said the Scottish Parliament committee examining the handling of harassment complaints is still waiting for the detailed evidence it has requested.
In a strongly worded statement, Ms Fabiani said she is “beyond frustration” at the lack of clarity the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints has received.
She told Mr Salmond his written submission remains outstanding ahead of an evidence-taking session next month, when MSPs intend to hear from the former first minister.
In a separate letter to Deputy First Minister John Swinney, she criticised “unacceptable” delays to documents being handed over to the committee.
Mr Swinney has been asked to hand over the legal advice the Scottish Government received about its unlawful investigation into Mr Salmond by Friday.
Ministers have repeatedly refused to reveal the guidance they received but in a parliamentary debate last week, MSPs called for the Scottish Government to waive its legal privilege and “publish all the legal advice it received”.
Mr Swinney said he and the Cabinet will “consider the implications of the motion”.
There is no doubt that we have received a large amount of information. But we are receiving very few clear answers.”
Committee convener Linda Fabiani
Ms Fabiani released a statement on Thursday saying: “Week after week the committee is in a position where it is clear to us that the evidence being shared with the committee lacks detail and indeed usefulness.
“This is both deeply problematic and deeply disrespectful.
“I have, on multiple occasions, made it clear exactly what evidence the committee wants to see.
“There is no doubt that we have received a large amount of information. But we are receiving very few clear answers.”
She added: “I am in a position today where I am, yet again, writing letters to express my frustration at the delay, the prevarication and obfuscation.
“But this goes beyond frustration. This must end and we will complete our work and do the job given to us by the nation’s Parliament.”
Court of Session ruling
In January 2019, the Court of Session ruled prior communication between investigating officer Judith MacKinnon and two women who came forward with complaints meant the inquiry was unlawful.
Lord Pentland added the government’s actions were “procedurally unfair and they were tainted with apparent bias”.
The Scottish Government ultimately conceded the case and the legal bill totalled more than £630,000 – including a £512,250 payout to Mr Salmond.
In a separate criminal case, Mr Salmond was cleared of all sex offence charges following a trial earlier this year.
‘Their frustration is understandable’
A source close to Mr Salmond said: “The parliamentary committee are investigating the government, not Alex Salmond.
“Their frustration with lack of information from the government is understandable. Exactly the same thing happened in the judicial review, which is why expenses were awarded on a punitive basis, and then again in the criminal case, which is why a search warrant was served upon the government.
“However, Alex has done his level best to help the committee, providing not just his successful petition for judicial review but also his own private legal advice, which demonstrated why the government’s behaviour was unlawful.
“Significantly, the government’s legal advice, paid for by public money, remains hidden from the committee.
Once that road block is removed Alex will be able to submit a statement as planned.”
Source close to Alex Salmond
“Alex will not submit partial evidence, as he is required under oath to tell the whole truth. As was explained in a letter to the committee convener back on September 29, the Crown have threatened potential prosecution if Alex reveals even to the parliamentary committee evidence disclosed during the criminal case.
“To their credit, the committee have since attempted to clear this obstacle with the Crown Office and no doubt will be able to prevail directly upon the Lord Advocate next week.
“In addition, given much of this evidence is government sourced and obtained by Crown search warrant, the committee may wish to ask why they don’t already have it. Once that road block is removed Alex will be able to submit a statement as planned.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is providing all relevant material to the committee and we are even in the process of initiating legal proceedings necessary to get the permission of the Court of Session to allow the release of further documents.”