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Nicola Sturgeon standards inquiry: Call to widen probe into ‘sorry saga’

Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond.

An inquiry into whether Nicola Sturgeon has broken ministerial rules should be widened to investigate claims she misled Holyrood over meetings concerning Alex Salmond, MSPs have said.

The call has been made by two members of the Holyrood committee looking into the Scottish Government’s botched handling of harassment complaints made against Alex Salmond.

Their plea is in response to evidence submitted to the committee by Ms Sturgeon last week, which raised more questions about when exactly she learned the Scottish Government was examining allegations against her predecessor as first minister.

In addition to Holyrood’s Salmond inquiry, Ms Sturgeon triggered a second investigation by referring herself to the panel that examines whether politicians have breached the ministerial code, the standards governing the behaviour of those in government.

Ministerial code inquiry

The ministerial code inquiry is being conducted by James Hamilton, formerly Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions.

Ms Sturgeon referred herself to his standards panel in January last year after it was claimed she had broken the code by failing to declare meetings she held with Mr Salmond to discuss the claims against him swiftly enough.

The Scottish Government’s ministerial code says that when discussing official business “any significant content” should be reported back to private offices.

The first minister referred herself after informing MSPs at Holyrood she had three meetings and two phone calls with Mr Salmond.

Leslie Evans.

Ms Sturgeon said she learned of the allegations against Mr Salmond when they met for the first time at her Glasgow home on April 2 2018. But she did not tell Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans of their meeting until two months later.

The first minister has also argued she was acting on party, rather than government, business when she met Mr Salmond.

Since then, however, details of another meeting between Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond’s former chief-of-staff, Geoff Aberdein, have emerged.

The meeting on March 29 2018 was not mentioned by Ms Sturgeon when she told MSPs in January last year of her meetings with Mr Salmond.

The encounter with Mr Aberdein only came to light during Mr Salmond’s criminal trial, which resulted in the former first minister being cleared of all charges of sexual assault earlier this year.

In evidence submitted to the Holyrood Salmond inquiry last week, Ms Sturgeon claimed the Aberdein meeting had slipped her mind. But, in retrospect, she thought it had included discussions of a sexual nature.

Ms Sturgeon’s submission led to Alex Cole-Hamilton, a member of the Salmond inquiry committee, calling for the broadening of Mr Hamilton’s investigation.

As it stands, the remit of Mr Hamilton’s ministerial code inquiry is limited to allegations Ms Sturgeon “failed to feed back” basic facts and discussions about her meetings and conversations with Mr Salmond.

But Mr Cole-Hamilton of the Lib Dems wants to widen Mr Hamilton’s inquiry so it looks at whether she misled parliament in respect of her meetings around the government’s investigation of Mr Salmond; the “timeline of her knowledge of the complaints” against him and when she knew he was subject to the government’s complaints procedure.

Mr Cole-Hamilton was supported by his fellow Salmond committee member, Labour’s Jackie Baillie.

Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “As it stands the Independent Adviser, James Hamilton, is tasked with investigating alleged ministerial code breaches relating to the series of meetings between the First Minister, her predecessor and his Chief of Staff.

“However, the revelations of recent weeks suggest that the First Minister may also have misled Parliament about what she knew and when. In light of these revelations, which could represent a further breach of the ministerial code, I believe the remit of Mr Hamilton’s inquiry should be widened to include these prospective breaches.

Alex Cole-Hamilton.

“This would allow an independent expert, above the party-political fray, to determine whether the First Minister knowingly didn’t tell the truth to our national parliament. If the Scottish Government insist on narrowing the scope of Mr Hamilton’s investigations then the public will draw their own conclusions.”

Mr Cole-Hamilton added: “This sorry saga has exposed a culture of secrecy and obstruction, cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds and, perhaps most egregiously, damaged confidence in the ability of the Scottish Government to appropriately handle harassment allegations.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The first minister stands by what she has said to parliament and by her written evidence to the committee, and looks forward to answering questions at the committee when they decide to ask her to appear.

“We will consider Mr Cole-Hamilton’s parliamentary questions and respond to him in the normal way.”