Ruth Davidson has accused the Scottish Government of proceeding with an attempted cover-up after new evidence emerged of warnings it could look “shifty” if information continued to be withheld during Alex Salmond’s legal challenge.
Nicola Sturgeon was asked at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday about an email exchange in which the Government was told not disclosing the ultimately-damning evidence of prior contact could be “portrayed as a failed attempt at a cover-up”.
According to the note released this week by the Government, external counsel argued it would be “better, more credible and less shifty-looking” to adjust its defence against Mr Salmond’s legal challenge over the Government’s handling of sexual harassment complaints made against him.
The note from a Government official – whose name is redacted – to Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans and the Government’s legal director Paul Cackette followed a meeting between the external counsel, Ms Sturgeon and Ms Evans.
The Government says no notes or minutes can be found from the meeting, but the correspondence indicates counsel advised adjusting the judicial review pleadings after evidence came to light of prior contact between the investigating officer and two of the women whose complaints about Mr Salmond had been investigated.
Recounting the substance of the meeting, the note states that counsel “felt it better, more credible and less shifty-looking if we proceed as proposed”.
It continues: “That was on the basis it will probably all end up being out there anyway (since a specification of documents is likely) and better to face it transparently than having this dragged out reluctantly and portrayed as a failed attempt at a cover-up.”
Ms Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Tories at Holyrood, said the correspondence had been “sneaked out” just days before the parliamentary inquiry into the Government’s unlawful investigation is due to report its findings.
She asked Ms Sturgeon: “Why did the Government go ahead with the attempt of the cover-up anyway?”
The First Minister replied: “What she has just quoted, what that actually means is counsel saying to Government: ‘Here are things we should hand over and we should hand them over – I think actually it was amend pleadings, although I’ll be corrected if I’m wrong on that – rather than have any suggestion that we’re trying to cover it up.’
“So what did we do? We amended the pleadings.
“All of this is out there for people to see, because people don’t have to take Ruth Davidson’s word for these things anymore.
“They don’t have to take the word of the old boys’ club in the House of Commons anymore.
“They can go on to the website of the Scottish Government, the Committee of this Parliament and read all this for themselves, and then they can make up their own minds.”
Ms Davidson responded: “The evidence does mount up as to the Government excuses, but nothing can excuse the way that the women at the heart of this were failed, nor the taxpayers’ money that was wasted.
“And the one thing that’s not happened is anyone in this Government taking the responsibility that they should.
“The circumstances demand that somebody loses their job over this – it could be the Permanent Secretary, could be the First Minister’s chief of staff, it could be the First Minister herself. But really, shouldn’t it be all of them?”
The First Minister also addressed allegations made in the Commons by David Davis MP, who used parliamentary privilege to read out leaked correspondence, including a message from the investigating officer that complained of “interference” by Ms Sturgeon’s chief of staff Liz Lloyd.
Ms Sturgeon claimed Mr Davis was “reading out his old pal Alex Salmond’s conspiracy theories”, and said: “Holding this Government to account is vital, but anyone who chooses to cheer that on should not pretend to have the interests of the women concerned at heart.”