Nicola Sturgeon has insisted it is “downright wrong” to blame political influence for the censorship of evidence submitted by her predecessor Alex Salmond to a Scottish Parliament inquiry, amid claims her SNP government is “shutting down scrutiny” of its actions.
Mr Salmond pulled out of a scheduled appearance before the inquiry on Wednesday after parliamentary authorities removed passages from the written submission setting out his case that there was a “malicious and concerted” attempt to remove him from public life through claims of sexual harassment.
In the document, he accused Ms Sturgeon, his former protegee and successor as first minister, of misleading Holyrood and breaching the ministerial code.
The former first minister is now reportedly ready to accept an invitation to appear on Friday, with Ms Sturgeon completing the inquiry’s evidence sessions next Wednesday by answering MSPs’ questions on the scandal which is convulsing Scottish politics.
Mr Salmond called on Scotland’s Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC to explain the “unprecedented and highly irregular” decision by the Crown Office – the body responsible for prosecuting crimes in Scotland – to demand the redaction of his evidence some 16 hours after its publication by the Holyrood parliament.
His spokesperson made clear that the former SNP leader wanted to know whether any political pressure was placed on the Crown Office to intervene.
“Mr Salmond has instructed his lawyers to request specifically that the Crown preserve and retain all material and communications with all or any third parties which led to their decision to intervene at the very last minute just as he was set to give his evidence,” said the spokesperson.
But Mr Wolffe told the Scottish Parliament that the decision was made by “senior professional prosecutors acting independently” to protect the identity of complainants in the harassment case, with no input from him.
“At no time have I encountered any situation in which ministers have sought to influence a prosecutorial decision,” he told MSPs.
“If any minister were to try to do so, I will not countenance it, nor, I am confident, would any professional prosecutor who acts on my behalf.”
Speaking at her daily coronavirus press conference, Ms Sturgeon dismissed any suggestion of political interference as a conspiracy theory.
“Any suggestion at all that these decisions are in any way politically influenced are downright wrong,” she said.
“I would suggest that they go further than that; that they actually start to buy into what is a false and quite dangerous conspiracy theory that has no basis in fact.”
Ms Sturgeon repeated her assertion that there is not “a shred of evidence” to support her former mentor’s claims of a plot to eject him from public life.
And she said he had no “good reason” to dodge the committee hearing on Wednesday.
“I hope he comes to the committee in early course so that he can say what he wants, put forward any claims that he wants and, crucially, bring forward the evidence,” she said.
“I want to get in front of this committee to answer every and all questions that people have of me, to address all the issues that people have and to rebut, frankly, head on and very directly, some of the wild, untrue, false and baseless claims.”
The inquiry by the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints was launched after a government investigation of allegations against Mr Salmond was found to be “tainted by apparent bias”.
The former first minister, who was later acquitted of 13 charges of sexual assault in a criminal trial, was awarded a £512,250 payout after he successfully challenged the lawfulness of the process.
Scottish Labour’s interim leader Jackie Baillie, who sits on the committee, said: “The credibility of the inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of harassment complaints, and indeed the credibility of the entire parliament, hangs in the balance.”
And Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: “The SNP government and the Crown Office are shutting down scrutiny at every turn.”
He accused the Crown Office of “strong-arming parliament and suppressing evidence, not to protect victims’ identities but to protect Nicola Sturgeon”.
Former cabinet minister Liam Fox told the House of Commons that Mr Salmond’s allegations would be a “damning indictment in a tinpot dictatorship” and voiced concern that the affair would “bring politics in the whole of the United Kingdom into international disrepute”.