Taxpayers foot £55,000 bill to 'prepare' civil servants for Salmond inquiry hearings

Dan Sanderson
·8-min read
Leslie Evans, left, was among the civil servants who had to correct evidence -  Andrew Milligan/PA
Leslie Evans, left, was among the civil servants who had to correct evidence - Andrew Milligan/PA

Nicola Sturgeon's government has spent more than £50,000 "preparing" civil servants to give evidence about the Alex Salmond affair at hearings where they suffered "collective memory loss", it has emerged.

Information obtained by The Daily Telegraph shows that by early November, £54,378 of taxpayers’ money had been spent on external assistance to help senior civil servants get ready for appearances at a Holyrood inquiry.

The Scottish Government refused to say which organisation or individual had been hired, but members of the committee branded the cost “astonishing” and said it raised questions over whether witnesses had been “coached”.

Staff logs released in response to a Freedom of Information request also show that witnesses spent several hours preparing for sessions, only to then face criticism for “forgetting” crucial details, giving misleading evidence, or dodging questions.

Alex Salmond is due to appear in the coming weeks - John Nguyen/JNVisuals
Alex Salmond is due to appear in the coming weeks - John Nguyen/JNVisuals

Despite the extensive and costly preparation, and appearing under oath, four of the six civil servants were forced to correct or clarify their evidence after their appearances.

The committee is investigating how more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money came to be lost to Mr Salmond, after he successfully challenged the fairness and legality of a Scottish Government probe into sexual harassment complaints against him in court.

A source close to Mr Salmond said: “The bill for the cover up continues to mount. It can hardly be said that they are getting value for money given the woeful performance of mandarins in front of the committee.

"It is clearly much more difficult, and much more costly, to dissemble than it is to tell the truth.”

The information relates to six senior civil servants who were involved in the botched inquiry, including Leslie Evans, the Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government, Ms Sturgeon’s chief mandarin.

It shows that Barbara Allison, director of communications and ministerial support, spent two weekends and set aside two working days to prepare for two evidence sessions.

She faced criticism after she twice claimed under oath in her first session that she had not received a text message from Ms Evans, in which she wrote “battle maybe lost but not the war”, on the day Mr Salmond won his judicial review.

Mr Salmond’s allies believe the message is evidence of a conspiracy against him.

But Ms Allison wrote to the committee shortly before her second appearance, admitting she had received the message after all.

James Hynd, head of cabinet, prepared for 21-and-a-half hours for one session. Ms Evans spent three-and-a-half hours preparing for her first two sessions, as well as conducting preparation work over two weekends. Judith Mackinnon, whose role investigating the allegations after having prior contact with complainers ultimately cost the government its legal case on the grounds of “apparent bias”, spent 23-and-a-half hours preparing for her appearance in October. These included a 90 minute “trial run” the day before her appearance.

However, all four would later have to correct or clarify testimony.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the LibDem MSP and a committee member, said: “To learn that the government has spent more than £50,000 of taxpayers' money prepping civil servants to come before our committee, when their performance has been patchy at best considering the collective memory loss that seems to have afflicted the civil service, is astonishing.

“It also raises the very real concern that these civil servants are being coached - that their answers are not natural, and once again, we might not be getting the full truth in our work.”

Murdo Fraser, the Tory MSP who also sits on the committee, also questioned the Scottish Government’s tactics.

He said: “The SNP Government might want to consider asking for a refund of their £54,000 considering how many top civil servants have had to correct their evidence to the inquiry.

“They have wasted thousands of pounds on coaching civil servants how to answer questions. Surely, all that was needed was to speak the truth?”

Mr Salmond has been invited to give evidence to the inquiry in person on Tuesday.

He said on Wednesday he would not be able to accept the invitation to attend next week, in part due to concerns over Covid restrictions. He suggested February 16 as an alternative date.

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon were once close allies - Andrew Milligan/PA
Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon were once close allies - Andrew Milligan/PA

Mr Salmond's team has also been in a legal wrangle with the Crown Office over the disclosure of documents obtained by him during his trial at the High Court last year where he was cleared of a series of charges of sexual misconduct.

The Crown Office said he would be committing a criminal offence by divulging the information to the committee, a situation Mr Salmond believes will prevent him from abiding by his oath to tell “the whole truth”, and the letter from his lawyer said an extension would allow more time to resolve the issues.

Meanwhile, Ms Sturgeon confirmed on Wednesday that James Hamilton, the former head of the Irish prosecution service in Ireland, could examine “all of the allegations” against her in relation to his probe into potential breaches of the ministerial code. She denies all breaches, although Mr Salmond has accused her of repeatedly misleading parliament over her handling of the allegations against him.

If it is established that she knowingly lied to parliament, Ms Sturgeon would be expected to resign.

Mr Salmond won a judicial review against the Scottish Government in January 2019. He was later cleared of all 13 sexual assault charges at his trial in March, following a separate criminal probe.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “It is completely untrue that Scottish Government witnesses have been coached. In line with the Scottish Government’s commitment to cooperate fully with the committee, civil servants have prepared for and provided over 21 hours of oral evidence on complex and historical events, in line with the data protection, confidentiality and legal restrictions that apply.

“Scottish Government witnesses are providing evidence to the best of their knowledge on behalf of ministers. However they are also giving their own recollections, under oath, of complex events that took place some time ago.

“Where further information or clarification has been required, we have followed up quickly in writing, including to correct inaccurate assertions by some committee members.”

Civil servants' clarifications and corrections

  • At an evidence session on September 15, Barbara Allison was asked whether she received a text message from Leslie Evans, in January 2019, stating “battle may be lost but not the war.” She twice claimed that she had not received the message. However, she later wrote to the committee, ahead of a second appearance, admitting she had received it after all. She claimed she "must have deleted" the message. She maintains that she cannot remember what she sent to Ms Evans to elicit the response.

  • The Scottish Government has repeatedly been accused of obstructing the inquiry by refusing to hand over legal advice it received about Mr Salmond's legal challenge. Mr Salmond has claimed ministers continued to fight his case until January 2019, despite being warned in October 2018 by external legal counsel that he was likely to win. The decision to pursue the case added to the bill for taxpayers when the government eventually conceded. MSPs have twice voted for the advice to be released, but SNP ministers have refused to comply. Asked on Tuesday whether external counsel had advised the Government to abandon its case in October, Ms Evans refused to answer citing “constraints about what I can say”.

  • Judith Mackinnon, the Scottish Government’s head of people advice, told MSPs during a hearing that she did not tell either of two women, who later made complaints about Mr Salmond, that she would be the investigating officer.= However, emails emerged to show she had indicated to one woman that an interview was "likely to be led by myself." She wrote to the committee to apologise and admit she had “inadvertently provided an incorrect response”.

  • Leslie Evans had said at a hearing in September that she was unaware of any role played by government special advisers in the legal process when Mr Salmond took the SNP government to court. However, documents emerged to show that Ms Evans attended talks with Ms Sturgeon, legal counsel and Liz Lloyd, the First Minister’s chief of staff and an SNP special adviser “My answer on this point in oral evidence to the committee was based upon my best recollection at the time but I accept that the record shows that the information above is correct,” Ms Evans wrote in a letter to the committee.

  • James Hynd had claimed “things were said” about Mr Salmond when asked if he had heard any “scuttlebutt”, “rumour mill” or “mutterings” about Mr Salmond’s conduct in relation to bullying or sexual misconduct. Mr Hynd then wrote to the committee to clarify that he had not heard rumours about allegations of “inappropriate” sexual conduct relating to Mr Salmond. The letter said: “My intention was to make clear to the committee that I did not at any time hear rumours regarding allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct relating to Mr Salmond.”