SNP ministers have been accused of ‘indefensible hypocrisy’ for refusing to release key documents about the Alex Salmond affair, after it emerged their party had demanded similar information from the UK government on multiple occasions.
The Scottish Government is refusing to hand over the legal advice it received linked to a civil case brought by the former First Minister into handling of sexual harassment complaints against him.
Mr Salmond won his judicial review, costing the taxpayer more than £500,000 after Nicola Sturgeon's government was ordered to pay his legal fees, and was then fully cleared in a criminal case following his trial in March.
A Holyrood committee has been set up to investigate the government’s handling of the initial probe against him, which a judge found was “unfair” and “tainted by apparent bias”.
Ministers have repeatedly refused requests to hand over the legal advice they received about its investigation, on the grounds that it is legally privileged. While it is a general principle that legal advice is not released, this can be overridden if ministers choose.
The Scottish Tories highlighted eight occasions in which SNP politicians had demanded the UK Government publish legal advice it had received. Meanwhile, it also publicised three occasions in which Scottish ministers had agreed to release legally privileged information to other inquiries.
The committee has warned that its efforts to effectively scrutinise the Scottish Government is being hampered by its secrecy.
“The SNP have demanded that legal advice be published on issue after issue, only to claim it shouldn’t be published in this instance to protect the SNP from harm,” Murdo Fraser, the Tory MSP and a member of the committee, said.
“The hypocrisy on show is indefensible. They are all for transparency until their government has something to hide.
“From start to finish, the SNP have made a mockery of this inquiry by refusing to give up key documents at every turn.
“It’s the height of nationalist nonsense to shut down scrutiny because they know it would uncover the truth about their failings.”
Among the examples put forward by the Tories were a demand in 2015 from two SNP MPs to hand over legal advice on the Syria airstrikes, repeated calls to hand over legal documents linked to Brexit and the EU withdrawal agreement, and a bid to obtain legal advice linked to the prorogation of parliament last year.
In December 2018, Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, bragged about obtaining legal advice about Brexit and criticised the UK Government for attempting to “hide it”.
Meanwhile, SNP ministers have released their own legal advice to the UK infected blood inquiry, the Scottish child abuse inquiry and the probe into Edinburgh trams.
The Holyrood committee is examining both the drawing up of a complaints procedure used to investigate Mr Salmond, which was made to apply to former ministers as well as serving government members, and how the judicial review launched by Mr Salmond was handled.
Leslie Evans, the Scottish Government’s top civil servant, has already given evidence twice to the inquiry. Nicola Sturgeon, her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, as well as Mr Salmond, are all set to give their accounts in the coming weeks.
Previously, Ms Sturgeon promised that the inquiry would have access to any information it wanted. However, she has sought to dodge criticism over her government’s failure to deliver on the pledge, by saying she had recused herself from any decision making as her conduct is being investigated.
In an extraordinary escalation, Mr Salmond’s lawyer last week said his client was willing to take the Scottish Government back to court to force the release of key documents relevant to the case. The Scottish Government has also attempted to block witnesses appearing in front of MSPs.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Government is taking steps to enable it to provide all the relevant information requested by the committee, so far as is possible, taking account of the confidentiality, data protection and legal restrictions that apply.”