An independent report has cleared Scotland’s First Minister of breaching the ministerial code following her government’s botched handling of harassment allegations against Alex Salmond.
Nicola Sturgeon welcomed the results of the investigation, which was carried out by James Hamilton QC and challenged her political rivals to respect his verdict.
The Conservatives, however, insisted that she was not “free and clear” despite Mr Hamilton stating the First Minister “did not breach the provisions of the ministerial code”.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross hit out: “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.”
The former first minister was awarded more than £500,000 when the Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled the Scottish Government had acted unlawfully in the way it handled harassment allegations made by two women.
Ms Sturgeon again apologised to them for the way they had been “let down” by the Scottish Government.
She said: “I want, once again, to remind people that at the heart of this case were women who had the courage to come forward and complain.”
Mr Hamilton, a former director of public prosecutions in the Republic of Ireland, is the independent adviser the Scottish Government on the ministerial code, a set of rules about how ministers should conduct themselves.
After his findings were published Ms Sturgeon said she was “happy that his report’s findings clear me of any breach of the ministerial code”.
The First Minister insisted: “I sought at every stage in this issue to act with integrity and in the public interest.
“As I have previously made clear, I did not consider that I had broken the code, but these findings are official, definitive and independent adjudication of that.”
And she added: “Prior to its publication, opposition politicians stressed the importance of respecting and accepting the outcome of Mr Hamilton’s independent inquiry, and I committed wholeheartedly to doing so.
“Now that he has reported, it is incumbent on them to do likewise.”
Ms Sturgeon had insisted to Parliament that she only became aware of the allegations against her predecessor in a meeting at her Glasgow home on April 2 2018.
Mr Hamilton said that by failing to mention a meeting she had with his former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein just days earlier, on March 29, which she later said she “forgot” the First Minister had given an “incomplete narrative of events”.
But he added: “I accept that this omission was the result of a genuine failure of recollection and was not deliberate.
“That failure did not therefore in my opinion amount to a breach of the ministerial code.”
Regarding claims she failed to comply with Scottish Government legal advice to the former first minister’s civil action, Mr Hamilton said she did not break the code.
Ms Sturgeon said she welcomed the “comprehensive, evidence-based and unequivocal” conclusion.
Ms Sturgeon had referred herself to the independent adviser on the ministerial code following Mr Salmond’s successful legal challenge.
Mr Hamilton’s investigation was paused in early 2019 to avoid prejudicing criminal proceedings brought against Mr Salmond.
He was acquitted of 13 charges, including sexual assault, indecent assault and attempted rape, in March 2020 following a High Court trial and Mr Hamilton’s inquiry was delayed again by the pandemic, before resuming in August 2020.
A planned no-confidence vote Ms Sturgeon is now likely to fail after the Scottish Greens said they will not support it, saying the Tories have shown “they have no interest in establishing the truth”, in lodging it before the report was published.
But Mr Ross insisted he could not agree with Mr Hamilton’s assessment.
The Conservative MP said: “The First Minister has been given a pass because it has been judged her ‘failure of recollection’ was ‘not deliberate’.
“I respect Mr Hamilton and his judgment but we cannot agree with that assessment.
“Nicola Sturgeon did not suddenly turn forgetful.”
He added: “As James Hamilton says, it is up to the Scottish Parliament to decide if the First Minister has been misleading.”