Alex Salmond affair: How MSPs are working to find out if the conspiracy theories are true or not – Murdo Fraser

An MSPs committee is determined to establish the truth about the handling of harassment complaints against the former First Minister Alex Salmond, writes Murdo Fraser
A committee of MSPs hope to get to the bottom of the Alex Salmond affair (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)A committee of MSPs hope to get to the bottom of the Alex Salmond affair (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)
A committee of MSPs hope to get to the bottom of the Alex Salmond affair (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)

Generally speaking, I am not a great believer in conspiracy theories. Whether it is the moon landings, the assassination of JFK, or the influence of the Illuminati, I take a pretty sceptical view of those with outlandish notions about secret events.

There are plenty of conspiracy theorists when it comes to the handling of the harassment complaints against former First Minister Alex Salmond by the Scottish Government. The parliamentary inquiry into this affair continued its business yesterday, hearing again from the Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, and also from the Lord Advocate, James Wolffe. It was an attempt to shine light into what is an increasingly murky set of affairs.

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We know from previous evidence sessions that there were serious concerns around the handling of complaints against ministers in the SNP Government, and that the scale of complaints seemed to be far above what was being reported in the civil service elsewhere. This suggested a culture within the Scottish Government of bullying the staff, something highlighted in the evidence the committee heard from trade union representatives last week. If concerns were raised, there was a tendency to deal with these quietly, by moving the complainer to a different office, rather than addressing the root of the problem.

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The committee is also investigating the handling of the judicial review by Mr Salmond in 2018-19, when he challenged the Scottish Government’s complaints process. We know that the Scottish Government subsequently accepted that there were flaws in the policy, and accordingly settled the case in the former First Minister’s favour, paying him legal costs in excess of £500,000.

What is significant about this sum is that he was awarded full legal cost and this is normally only paid in circumstances where one party has conducted the case incompetently or unreasonably, thereby causing the other party unnecessary expense. For it to be paid by the Scottish Government in this case suggests a woeful mishandling of the legal case, for which the Scottish taxpayer is picking up the bill.

The Scottish Government is still refusing to release the legal advice on which they based their decision to defend Salmond’s court challenge. It is unclear how definitive this was, but the consequences of following it (if that is what the Scottish Government did) were significant, hundreds of thousands of pounds spent in legal expenses.

There are other unanswered questions around the role of the current First Minister in all this. A Freedom of Information request has revealed that some 15 meetings were held between August 2018 and January 2019 to discuss the defence of the judicial review petition, in which one or more of the First Minister, the Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, the head of people advice Judith McKinnon, the Lord Advocate, and the First Minister’s chief of staff. Why was the First Minister attending meetings about what was essentially a legal matter? And why was her Chief of Staff also in attendance?

It has emerged that in the wake of the judicial review case, Leslie Evans sent a text message to a colleague stating: “We may have lost the battle, but we will win the war.” I asked her yesterday if this was a reference to a war against Alex Salmond, but she denied this, claiming that she was talking about the construction of a robust harassment complaints process.

I doubt that this explanation will satisfy many of Mr Salmond’s allies, who remain convinced that he was the target of an organised campaign by those at the top of the Scottish Government. It is the purpose of this committee to try and get to the truth of the matter, and we have still to hear from the First Minister herself, and Mr Salmond. It is clear we are some weeks away, at least, of getting a clear picture of what exactly has been going on. Until we have full transparency on all issues in this affair, the conspiracy theories will continue to abound.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife

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