Alex Salmond inquiry: There's a whiff of corruption about the SNP government's actions – Murdo Fraser MSP

We now know that the Scottish government failed to meet the deadline of last Friday for delivery to the Salmond Inquiry Committee of the legal advice it obtained in relation to the judicial review taken against it by the former First Minister, in relation to its flawed complaints process.

Lord Advocate James Wolffe gives evidence to a socially distanced Scottish Parliament committee (Picture: Russell Cheyne/PA Wire)

The Deputy First Minister John Swinney wrote to the committee on Friday afternoon stating that the matter was still under consideration, but no timescale could be given as to when an outcome would be confirmed. Once more, the Scottish government has shown contempt for the committee process.

This latest development is just the latest in a long line of obstruction and non-co-operation, where the best that the committee has had is a drip-feed of important information being released on a piecemeal basis. It is not surprising that the committee’s SNP Convenor Linda Fabiani last week stated that its work was being undermined by “delay, prevarication and obfuscation” on the part of the SNP government.

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It was originally agreed that this committee would be established in January 2019, nearly two years ago. It is therefore frankly extraordinary that at this stage in the process information is still being withheld.

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Stakes are too high

With the committee having indicated that we are hoping to conclude taking evidence by Christmas, giving us effectively another five weeks to consider all the issues, it now seems clear that the government’s tactic is to deliberately delay and cynically run down the clock, hoping that time will overtake the committee’s deliberations, and that the media and public will then lose interest.

If that indeed is the government’s stance – and on the evidence we have to date, there is no reason to believe otherwise – then they are in for a rude awakening. The stakes are simply too high to allow key issues to be brushed under the carpet, however convenient that would be for the First Minister and her colleagues.

A committee of MSPs is looking into the Scottish government's handling of complaints made against former First Minister Alex Salmond

Fundamentally what this issue is about is women who made complaints about the behaviour of the former First Minister, and were failed by the system. Why that was allowed to happen, and how public funds were then wasted in defence of a flawed complaints process, is what the committee has been set up to report on. If we cannot come to conclusions on these matters, then the whole exercise will have been pointless.

The most serious allegation that the Scottish government has to counter is that public funds were misused in defending the judicial review as part of a political vendetta against the former First Minister. Far-fetched as this might sound, the evidence in support of this claim is slowly, damningly, building. We have the retrospective nature of the complaints policy and its application to former ministers being agreed, notwithstanding advice to the contrary. We have the personal involvement of the current First Minister and her chief of staff in the preparation of the policy.

SNP chief’s text about pressuring police

We have evidence that the First Minister’s private secretary John Somers had meetings with one of the complainants against Mr Salmond on both November 20 and November 21, 2017, and we know that it was on November 22 that the First Minister confirmed that the policy would apply to former ministers. On top of that, we have the message from the Permanent Secretary, Leslie Evans, to a colleague, just after Mr Salmond’s victory in the judicial review case stating that the battle was lost but the war would be won.

And, finally, we have the text messages from Peter Murrell, chief executive of the SNP, suggesting that pressure be brought on the police in relation to their pursuit of Mr Salmond.

There may well be an innocent explanation for all these events, but if there is then we have yet to hear it. The principle of Occam’s Razor tells us that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. On that basis, the Scottish government has a great deal of work to do to prove that there was no conspiracy against Alex Salmond, and thus far they are not helping themselves.

At yesterday’s meeting of the committee, the Lord Advocate James Wolffe was subject to sustained questioning from members as to his involvement in the judicial review process, and the government’s legal advice at different times.

He consistently stonewalled, referring questioners to the legal privilege which meant he could not give details of the advice. To be fair, it was not clear that he, as Scotland’s senior law officer, was the blockage here – in this respect the Lord Advocate is subject to the decisions taken by Scottish ministers.

Start coming clean

One piece of important information that did come out of the session was the admission that the Scottish government may not have followed legal advice at all times throughout the case. Nor did the Lord Advocate deny that legal counsel threatened to resign unless their advice was followed, as has been alleged.

Without sight of the legal advice, it is impossible to reach the truth on these matters, but they are vital to understanding the decisions that ministers took, and the motivations behind them.

The continued reluctance of the government to provide the committee with vital documents, including the legal advice, can only lead to the conclusion that they have something to hide.

As it stands, there is a growing smell of corruption around this SNP administration, in the way that it has handled this whole affair.

If they are not going to do more damage to themselves, and the wider body politic, then they really need to start coming clean. The clock is ticking.

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