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Nicola Sturgeon cleared of claims she breached ministerial code

Nicola Sturgeon breach
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Nicola Sturgeon did not breach the ministerial code of conduct in relation to the Alex Salmond inquiry, an independent report has concluded.

The finding is contained in the long-awaited report on the First Minister’s conduct, written by Ireland’s former director of public prosecutions, James Hamilton.

Released on Monday afternoon, it concludes: “I am of the opinion that the First Minister did not breach the provisions of the Ministerial Code in respect of any of these matters.”

The report looked at whether Ms Sturgeon knowingly breached the code of conduct that governs Scottish Government ministers.

Inquiries focused on accounts given by the First Minister to MSPs who scrutinised the way the Scottish Government handled complaints about Alex Salmond dating back to his time in office.

Former first minister Alex Salmond prepares to give his opening statement to the Scottish Parliament Harassment committee.

Key issues include whether there was interference with the civil service and whether parliament was misled.

Mr Salmond took the government to a judicial review, which found the government process was tainted by apparent bias and unlawful. The saga turned the two former friends against each other and caused turmoil within the SNP.

A separate criminal trial ended with Mr Salmond cleared of charges.

Ms Sturgeon, who referred herself for investigation by Mr Hamilton in January 2019, said: “Now that this investigation is complete and its conclusions public, I will continue to devote all of my time and energy to leading Scotland, to helping the country through the pandemic, and to ensuring that as we rebuild from the hardships of the last 12 months, we do everything we can to protect jobs, support our health service and rebuild our communities for the better.”

The Hamilton report was finally published in the last week of a highly charged end to the Scottish parliamentary session and one day before the publication of a Holyrood inquiry report on the government’s handling of the harassment complaints.

All  of this, just weeks before a Scottish Parliament election that already had a blistering political row about a possible second independence referendum as a backdrop.

James Hamilton

Hamilton’s 61-page report was published on the Scottish Government website shortly after 4.30pm on Monday.

It considered four key allegations. First, Ms Sturgeon was said to have breached the code by not recording her meetings and telephone calls with Mr Salmond and others on March 29, April 2 and 23, June 7 and 14 and July 18.

James Hamilton.

It was also alleged Ms Sturgeon misled the Scottish Parliament relating to the meetings.

Hamilton probed allegations the First Minister may have tried to influence the conduct of the investigation overseen by the top civil servant, Leslie Evans, into harassment allegations against Mr Salmond.

The final, key allegation was Ms Sturgeon breached her duty to comply with the law in respect of the Scottish Government’s response to the petition of Mr Salmond for judicial review.

On the March 29 meeting, Mr Hamilton considered Ms Sturgeon’s failure to refer to it in a statement at Holyrood. She had met Mr Salmond’s aide, Geoff Aberdein, who asked to meet the former first minister.

In his report, Mr Hamilton explained: “It is regrettable that the First Minister’s statement on January 8 2019 did not include a reference to the meeting with Mr Aberdein on March 29.

“In my opinion, however, her explanation for why she did not recall this meeting when giving her account to Parliament, while inevitably likely to be greeted with suspicion, even scepticism by some, is not impossible.

“What tilts the balance towards accepting the First Minister’s account for me is that I find it difficult to think of any convincing reason why if she had in fact recalled the meeting she would have deliberately concealed it while disclosing all the conversations she had had with Mr Salmond.”

Mr Hamilton’s report goes on to say: “It is for the Scottish Parliament to decide whether they were in fact misled.

“Mr Salmond overstates the case when he refers to ‘the repeated representation to the Parliament of the meeting on April 2 2018 as being a party meeting’. The Official Reports of the Scottish Parliament for January 8, 10 and 17 2019 contain no such claim by the First Minister.”

The report considers the meeting on April 2 2018, – where Mr Salmond met with Ms Sturgeon in her home – was not a “party” meeting related to the SNP.

It says: “Although I accept the First Minister’s statement that her motivation for agreeing to the meeting was personal and political, and she may have sought to underscore this by hosting it in her private home with no permanent civil servant present and no expenditure of public money, it could not in my opinion be characterised as a party meeting.

“Members of political parties do not ordinarily attend party meetings accompanied by their lawyers, and when the First Minister’s husband, who is chairman of the SNP, arrived home, he did not join the meeting.

“In fairness the First Minister did not seek to make any case to me that this was a party meeting.”

Significant breaches of the ministerial code would normally lead to intense pressure to step down from government.

Despite the conclusion of the independent report, the opposition will still try to topple Ms Sturgeon just over a month from the election.

Conservatives are leading a motion of no confidence in the First Minister on Tuesday – the same day as a Holyrood’s own inquiry into the handling of harassment complaints is due to be published.

‘She is not free and clear’

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said the First Minister has been given a “pass” but accused her again of misleading parliament.

He said: “She is not free and clear. The First Minister promised to ‘respect the decisions’ of both inquiry reports, not to pick and choose which one suits her and try to discredit the other.

Nicola Sturgeon breach
Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross.

“As James Hamilton says, it is up to the Scottish Parliament to decide if the First Minister has been misleading.

“This report does not change the overwhelming evidence that Nicola Sturgeon misled Parliament, her government badly let women down and wasted more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money.”

Tuesday’s vote of no confidence is expected to fall because the Green party will side with the SNP, giving Ms Sturgeon majority support.

MSPs ‘should step down now’

Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie criticised the Conservatives and said: “This entire saga should have been about examining a process that let down women and ensuring that was never repeated.

“In their ridiculous attempts to pursue a political scalp the Tories have completely ignored that fact. Ruth Davidson and Douglas Ross have shown that they have absolutely nothing positive to offer the people of Scotland.

Scottish Green Party co-convener Patrick Harvie.

“Worse still, members of the parliamentary committee have shown utter contempt for the women involved, and for the rules of the Scottish Parliament, by leaking confidential evidence and their own conclusions.

“If anyone’s resignation is still needed, it is these MSPs who should step down now, and who should not be candidates for re-election in May.”

Scotland’s deputy first minister, John Swinney, said: “I want to thank Mr Hamilton for his thorough and impartial assessment of the facts.

“People can read the report for themselves, but the rigour and independence of his investigation is clear.”