Nicola Sturgeon accused of misleading parliament over Alex Salmond

Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of misleading the Scottish parliament over her dealings with Alex Salmond, but not knowingly, in a highly critical report by MSPs.

A specially convened Holyrood committee voted by a 5-4 margin to find the first minister had misled parliament over her accounts of a meeting with Salmond, her former mentor, in April 2018.

A majority of MSPs on the committee said there was clear evidence she had misled the committee over whether she told Salmond she would intervene in a Scottish government harassment inquiry on his behalf, and that the “fundamental contradiction” in her evidence amounted to a potential breach of the ministerial code.

The same majority were dubious about Sturgeon’s testimony that she did not know of any prior concerns about Salmond’s behaviour, and said there was clear evidence she did breach the ministerial code.

“The committee finds it hard to believe that the first minister had no knowledge of any concerns about inappropriate behaviour on the part of Mr Salmond prior to November 2017. If she did have such knowledge, then she should have acted upon it. If she did have such knowledge, then she has misled the committee,” stated the report, small excerpts of which were controversially leaked last week.

“The committee notes that there is a fundamental contradiction in the evidence in relation to whether, at the meeting on 2 April 2018, the first minister did or did not agree to intervene. Taking account of the competing versions of events, the committee believes that she did in fact leave Mr Salmond with the impression that she would, if necessary, intervene.

“This was confirmed by Duncan Hamilton [Salmond’s lawyer] who was also at the meeting. Her written evidence is therefore an inaccurate account of what happened, and she has misled the committee on this matter. This is a potential breach of the ministerial code under the terms of section 1.3.”

That finding has stopped short of ruling Sturgeon misled parliament “knowingly”. Knowingly misleading parliament would be a clear breach of the ministerial code and a resignation matter.

The ruling, which caused a deep split in the committee, contradicts the findings on Monday of an independent inquiry into Sturgeon’s conduct, which exonerated her of several charges of breaching the ministerial code.

James Hamilton, a former director of public prosecutions in Ireland, said on Monday that while Sturgeon had had “regrettable” lapses of memory about her initial dealings with Salmond, he accepted her explanations of why she met the former first minister.

Despite Hamilton’s decision to clear her of breaching the code, Sturgeon still faces a no confidence motion tabled by the Scottish Conservatives in Holyrood later on Tuesday.

Murdo Fraser, the party’s spokesperson on the inquiry, who sat on the committee, said the report’s verdict was that Sturgeon had misled parliament and the public. “If she ploughs on regardless, as she did against the advice of lawyers in the doomed Alex Salmond judicial review case, the first minister will leave the country scarred by the most bitter divisions.”

No other opposition party is expected to back the motion, given the Hamilton findings, but opposition leaders are likely to take the opportunity to criticise Sturgeon’s conduct and the actions of her government.

The committee accused Leslie Evans, the permanent secretary and the Scottish government’s chief civil servant, of an “individual failing as significant” as the government’s corporate failures over the mishandling of the judicial review.

It stopped short of calling for Evans to quit but said “those responsible should be held accountable”.

The committee has, for the first time, published testimony from Ms A and Ms B, the two female officials whose accusations against Salmond triggered the Scottish government inquiry in January 2018, which in turn led to police launching a criminal investigation in autumn 2018.

Salmond comprehensively won his legal challenge against the internal inquiry on procedural grounds. A judge ruled the government’s decision to appoint a civil servant who had had prior contact with Ms A and Ms B as the investigating officer rendered the inquiry unlawful and gave “the appearance of bias”.

Salmond was later acquitted of 14 charges of sexual assault, including one of attempted rape, after a high court trial in March 2020.

Ms A and Ms B told the committee last week they believed there was a poor organisational culture within the government when Salmond was first minister. There had been “complicity across a number of fronts” in terms of people not challenging any allegedly inappropriate behaviour by Salmond.

In a joint statement appended to the committee’s report, the women said: “There were not clear boundaries for what was appropriate behaviour, or leadership in the organisation to challenge behaviours.”

One of the women commented that “making complaints was simply not the done thing”, and both said there had been no encouragement to use the Scottish government’s harassment policy.

Their statement had also been leaked in advance of the report and, in a statement on Tuesday morning, the SNP members of the committee described this as a “betrayal of trust … unworthy of this parliament and a discredit to those responsible”.

They went on: “For some committee members, the requisite degree of impartial objectivity was deserted in pursuit of naked party politics. Their leaks, misdirection, speculation and smears by press release or social media created a media circus which added immeasurably to the women’s ordeal.”

In a detailed 192-page report, the committee accused Sturgeon, her deputy, John Swinney, and government officials of “significantly” impeding their inquiry by delaying the release of documents, including legal papers, which damaged public confidence.

It was “dismayed” Evans did not grasp how problematic it was to appoint an investigating officer, Judith Mackinnon, who had had significant prior contact with the complainers. That “significant failure” cost the taxpayer money, it said.

The committee was also “concerned” by how long it had taken Sturgeon to inform Evans she was aware of the complaints, and concluded it was “inappropriate for the first minister to continue to meet and have discussions” with Salmond after she first heard about them.

Linda Fabiani, the committee’s chair and a former SNP minister, said: “There are undoubtedly some extremely serious findings in our report and it was clear to the committee that there were serious flaws made in the government’s application of its own process. The government must address these to ensure anyone who experiences sexual harassment has the confidence to come forward.”