Alex Salmond inquiry: Thursday High Court application ‘key’ as committee votes against publishing crucial evidence from former first minister

Holyrood’s harassment complaints committee has voted against publishing the evidence from former first minister Alex Salmond on the potential ministerial code breach by Nicola Sturgeon.

An evidence submission on the breach of the ministerial code from Alex Salmond will not be published by the Salmond Inquiry
An evidence submission on the breach of the ministerial code from Alex Salmond will not be published by the Salmond Inquiry

The narrow vote against publishing the evidence was taken on Tuesday morning during a private session of the committee.

Mr Salmond’s legal team confirmed on Monday he would not appear in front of the committee on Tuesday morning due to concerns around the fact the evidence had not been published.

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It is also understood that a key legal action will take place on Thursday in Edinburgh’s High Court.

An application is listed at the court to be heard on Thursday, but no information about it has been made public.

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It is believed the hearing may be linked to the decision by some media outlets to print the submission in full.

Mr Salmond’s final decision as to whether to appear in front of the committee will be made after the result of that application, which could provide a way for the Scottish Parliament to publish the evidence.

If not, the former first minister is set to hold a press conference, most likely next week, where he will set out his version of events.

The committee is examining the botched handling of harassment complaints against Mr Salmond by the Scottish Government, which led to a £500,000 legal bill after the government conceded a judicial review challenge on the grounds of the process being “tainted by apparent bias”.

Mr Salmond was also acquitted of sexual offence charges in a trial last year.

Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Conservative spokesperson on the committee, initially proposed a motion to agree to publish the submission.

But it was defeated five votes to four, with SNP MSPs Alasdair Allan, Tom Arthur, convener Linda Fabiani, and Maureen Watt, alongside independent and ex-Green MSP Andy Wightman, voting against the motion.

Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie, Scottish Tories Margaret Mitchell and Mr Fraser, and Liberal Democrat Alex Cole-Hamilton, voted for the submission to be published.

A motion to defer the decision to the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body was also blocked by the same five MSPs.

The initial decision not to publish the evidence made last week was described as “farcical” by Mr Salmond.

This is mainly due to the fact it has been widely reported – in some cases in full – by parts of the media.

A Scottish Parliament spokesperson said: “The default position for the committee has always been that it would publish as much information as possible.

"However, the work of this committee must respect relevant legal obligations, including court orders made in relation to a judicial review and a criminal trial, which are aimed at protecting the anonymity of complainers.

“Whilst the issue of publication is ultimately a matter for the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body, the majority of the committee is in agreement that it cannot publish given the legal constraints on it.

“The committee would have been able to publish Mr Salmond’s submission, in line with the committee’s statement, as it has his other submissions to the committee.

"However, publication of the full submission in a manner that is readily accessible has made it impossible for the committee to make the redactions needed to meet its legal obligations.

"This is clearly regrettable and something outwith the committee’s control, but the committee will not breach its data protection obligations or the court orders. This reasoning has been made clear to Mr Salmond on numerous occasions.”

“The committee has corresponded extensively with Mr Salmond and his legal representatives since July, when he was first asked to make this submission by early August. In addition to the issues around Mr Salmond’s submission, there are a number of conditions to his appearance that the committee simply could never meet, including waiving threat of all legal prosecution. It is simply not within the Committee’s gift to make such a commitment.

“The committee will use the detailed submissions he had already made to the committee, all of which have been published by Parliament in line with the committee’s statement on written evidence, as well as the over 130 pages of documentation from his solicitor, to help complete its vital work. All of this can be used to question the First Minister and can be published in the committee’s report.”

A letter from Mr Salmond’s lawyer, David McKie, to the committee on Monday states the decision not to publish his written submission in full would “plainly undermine the capacity of the committee to fulfil the remit set by Parliament”.

The vote to block the publication of the submission was described as a “blow to the credibility of the committee” by Jackie Baillie.

The Scottish Labour MSP said: “The decision not to publish this vital evidence is, in my view, a blow to the credibility of the committee, and, by extension, to the Parliament itself.

“The evidence in question is already largely in the public domain and by refusing to publish it, even with appropriate redactions, the committee has denied itself the chance to question the former First Minister.

“I do not believe that the public interest has been well served by this decision and the ability of the Parliament to hold the Scottish Government to account is called into question.”

Mr Fraser said: “It is hugely disappointing that some of my fellow committee members have failed to back my call for this vital evidence to be published – with appropriate redactions – despite much of it already being in the public domain.

“This again sums up the lack of scrutiny the SNP Government will be subjected to in relation to this inquiry. It will constrain what we can say and what we can ask of witnesses, which is completely unacceptable.

“Today’s vote will only raise suspicions among the wider public that the SNP Government have had no intention of being fully transparent with this inquiry despite what the First Minister has said previously.”

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