MSPs looking into the botched handling of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond have said Nicola Sturgeon gave an “inaccurate account” of a meeting with her predecessor.
The Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints voted 5-4 along party lines to come to its conclusion, which was leaked on Thursday night as the MSPs continued to consider their report.
Claims of inaccuracy have added to pressure on the First Minister to step down, but she has said she will wait for the outcome of a separate inquiry by James Hamilton QC into whether she broke the ministerial code.
Why was the committee established?
It was set up after a successful judicial review by former first minister Mr Salmond resulted in the Scottish Government’s investigation of harassment allegations against him being ruled unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”, with a £512,250 payout being awarded to him for legal fees in 2019.
MSPs have taken evidence from Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon, from civil servants, including repeated sessions from Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, trade unions and from SNP chief executive Peter Murrell – who is current First Minister Ms Sturgeon’s husband.
Why did Mr Salmond take legal action?
The former first minister did not feel his treatment by the Scottish Government was fair.
It was later found that the lead investigator of the complaints had prior contact with some of the female complainers, leading Judge Lord Pentland to say the investigation was “tainted with apparent bias”.
How has the inquiry gone?
The committee has repeatedly voiced frustration about the slow handing over of evidence from a number of parties.
The Scottish Government was accused of obstruction last year, with the committee saying it was “completely frustrated” with the lack of evidence.
Both the committee and the Scottish Government were at loggerheads over legal advice provided as part of the judicial review process. MSPs wanted to know when the Scottish Government was advised it would likely lose the challenge raised by Mr Salmond, but ministers said handing over the advice would breach the ministerial code.
On two occasions, MSPs voted for the evidence to be released, with a deal eventually being struck in December to reveal the advice only to MSPs on the committee.
Following a vote of no confidence threat in the Deputy First Minister, the Scottish Government released “key legal advice”, but the Scottish Tories were not satisfied and continued in their bid to oust John Swinney, which ultimately failed.
Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon separately sat for mammoth sessions in front of the committee, taking questions from MSPs over several hours.
Didn’t Mr Salmond face trial on sexual misconduct charges?
Yes. The former first minister was cleared of 13 charges at the High Court in Edinburgh in March last year after being arrested in January 2019.
What were the issues with Mr Salmond’s evidence to the committee?
Mr Salmond and the committee have been caught in repeated legal wrangles over evidence published by the inquiry.
Last month, the former first minister said he would not appear before the committee after it decided not to publish his submission to a separate investigation into whether Ms Sturgeon breached the ministerial code over fears it may identify some of the complainers in Mr Salmond’s criminal trial last year.
However, an alteration made to a court order by Judge Lady Dorrian meant the evidence could potentially be made public.
While the committee voted against publication, the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB) made the decision to publish anyway.
The evidence was online for less than 24 hours before the Crown Office raised concerns with Holyrood about it, asking for redactions to be made.
In his submission, the former first minister accused some in the Scottish Government and SNP of a “malicious and concerted attempt to damage my reputation and remove me from public life in Scotland”.
But Ms Sturgeon said her predecessor did not have “a shred of evidence” to support his claims.
The submission was later re-released, with a number of paragraphs relating to the set-up of a meeting between Mr Salmond and his successor redacted.
Is the committee inquiry the only investigation into the matter?
No. Ms Sturgeon is currently under investigation by James Hamilton QC to establish if she breached the ministerial code.
Ms Sturgeon referred herself after being accused of misleading Parliament over when she knew of the complaints against Mr Salmond.
She previously said she had been told about the allegations by Mr Salmond himself during a meeting in her home on April 2, 2018.
However, it was later found that Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein had met with the First Minister in her Holyrood office four days prior to that, where she was told of the complaints.
What has the committee concluded?
A leak on Thursday evening from inside the committee revealed it has concluded the First Minister misled the inquiry over whether she had offered to intervene in the case – which Ms Sturgeon denies doing.
Two other witnesses, one of whom is Mr Salmond’s lawyer and former SNP MSP Duncan Hamilton and who was at the meeting in question, contradicted the First Minister’s statement.
The conclusion was arrived at following a 5-4 party line vote, with the four SNP members of the committee, including convener Linda Fabiani, supporting the First Minister’s assertion.
What has the First Minister said?
Ms Sturgeon and her team have accused members of the committee of a “partisan leak”, stressing she “told the truth” to the committee.
What could it mean for the First Minister if she is found to have knowingly misled Parliament?
Currently, neither of the investigations have found that the First Minister intentionally misled either the chamber or the inquiry.
However, if they were to come to that conclusion, pressure on Ms Sturgeon’s position would increase exponentially.
She is already facing a vote of no confidence from the Scottish Tories, with next week the last chance for the motion to be debated in Holyrood before the election campaign.
Other opposition parties, including the Scottish Greens, would find it difficult to support Ms Sturgeon if she is found to have knowingly misled the Parliament.