Hamilton report finds Nicola Sturgeon ‘did not breach the ministerial code’

Nicola Sturgeon has described the findings of an independent investigation that has ruled she did not breach the ministerial code around meetings with former first minister Alex Salmond as “unequivocal”.

The finding will lift some of the intense pressure on Ms Sturgeon’s shoulders and will save her from a potential defeat in a vote of no confidence on Tuesday after the Scottish Greens confirmed they would not back the move, brought forward by the Scottish Conservatives.

James Hamilton was asked to investigate whether the First Minister had breached the ministerial code due to her meetings with Mr Salmond and a meeting with Geoff Aberdein, the former first minister’s chief of staff, held while her predecessor was being investigated by the Scottish Government

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The barrister was asked to examine whether Ms Sturgeon misled Parliament over her knowledge of the investigation into Mr Salmond and whether she should have informed the civil service of her meetings with her former friend before she did.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon leaves her home in Glasgow, Scotland. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon leaves her home in Glasgow, Scotland. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The First Minister was cleared of not breaching the ministerial code on several grounds, including her statement to Parliament about the meeting with Mr Aberdein on March 29, 2018.

Following the report’s publication, Ms Sturgeon said the conclusions were “official, definitive and independent” and that she was “happy” she had been cleared of any breach.

Mr Hamilton states in his report that he accepts Ms Sturgeon’s evidence that she was not aware of complaints or allegations against Mr Salmond before the harassment complaints procedure

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The report by James Hamilton into Nicola Sturgeon's conduct around the Salmond affair has been published.

He adds the First Minister was “justified and acted properly” in excluding herself from the process and said he did not believe Ms Sturgeon had any responsibility under the ministerial code for wrongdoing by “other persons”.

However, Mr Hamilton says the allegation a name of a complainer was leaked to Mr Aberdein was “credible”, but the discussions between Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff and the senior official “did not constitute any breach of the ministerial code”.

Reacting, Douglas Ross said the Scottish Conservatives would press on with their vote of no confidence and urged other parties to back it.

The party leader said: “The First Minister has been given a pass because it has been judged her ‘failure of recollection’ was ‘not deliberate’.

“I respect Mr Hamilton and his judgement, but we cannot agree with that assessment. Nicola Sturgeon did not suddenly turn forgetful.

“She is not free and clear. The First Minister promised to ‘respect the decisions’ of both inquiry reports, not to pick and choose which one suits her and try to discredit the other.

“The SNP spin machine will go into hyper-drive to again attack the committee report because they’re running scared of its findings. They have accelerated the vote of no confidence in Nicola Sturgeon to avoid MSPs scrutinising that report.

“As James Hamilton says, it is up to the Scottish Parliament to decide if the First Minister has been misleading.

“This report does not change the overwhelming evidence that Nicola Sturgeon misled Parliament, her government badly let women down and wasted more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money.”

But Scottish Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie instead called for those on the Holyrood inquiry not to seek re-election in May and claimed the Scottish Conservatives had “no interest in establishing the truth”.

He confirmed his party would not back the vote of no confidence – a stance set to guarantee the motion fails.

Mr Harvie said: “Unlike other political parties, we’ve said all along that we would respect due process. We therefore welcome the publication of James Hamilton’s independent report.

"It retains credibility in this process, unlike the parliamentary committee which has repeatedly sabotaged its own authority and betrayed the trust of original complainers.

"Worse still, members of the parliamentary committee have shown utter contempt for the women involved, and for the rules of the Scottish Parliament, by leaking confidential evidence and their own conclusions. If anyone's resignation is still needed, it is these MSPs who should step down now, and who should not be candidates for re-election in May.”

In his findings, Mr Hamilton says he found it “very hard to know what to make of” the story about the birthday party being the reason Mr Aberdein was in Parliament on March 29, 2018, and said both Mr Aberdein and Ms Sturgeon seemed “convincing”.

Stating the omission of the March 29 meeting in her statement of meetings with Mr Salmond was “regrettable”, Mr Hamilton states that while Ms Sturgeon’s account is “inevitably likely to be greeted with suspicion, even scepticism by some, [it] is not impossible”.

He adds: “What tilts the balance towards accepting the First Minister’s account for me is that I find it difficult to think of any convincing reason why, if she had in fact recalled the meeting, she would have deliberately concealed it while disclosing all the conversations she had had with Mr Salmond.”

Mr Hamilton states that while the statement to Holyrood was an “incomplete narrative of events”, he accepted “this omission was the result of a genuine failure of recollection and was not deliberate”.

On the suggestion the First Minister should have intervened in the complaints handling process, the allegation put forward by Mr Salmond, Mr Hamilton says it would “undoubtedly have been seen as a partisan and political interference”.

He adds that intervening would “undoubtedly have undermined public confidence in the processes of government to a much greater extent than in face eventually happened”.

Mr Hamilton also rejected the suggestion that Ms Sturgeon should have intervened during the judicial review. He said she was right to follow the advice of the law officers, labelling Mr Salmond’s allegation she should have intervened as “misconceived”.

On the meetings with Mr Salmond not being reported back to Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, Mr Hamilton said he “fully accepts the logic” the record of such meetings would have been impossible “without a risk of prejudicing the proceedings or interfering with their confidentiality”, stating the First Minister acted within the “spirit and the letter” of the code.

He concluded: “I am of the opinion that the First Minister did not breach the provisions of the ministerial code in respect of any of these matters.”

Responding to the findings in the report, Ms Sturgeon said: “I welcome the conclusions of James Hamilton’s independent investigation, which are comprehensive, evidence-based and unequivocal.

“I sought at every stage in this issue to act with integrity and in the public interest. As I have previously made clear, I did not consider that I had broken the code, but these findings are official, definitive and independent adjudication of that.

“Prior to its publication, opposition politicians stressed the importance of respecting and accepting the outcome of Mr Hamilton’s independent inquiry and I committed wholeheartedly to doing so. Now that he has reported, it is incumbent on them to do likewise.”

She added: “I was determined, however, at the time these complaints emerged that they should not be swept under the carpet and that I would not intervene in the process.

“Had I done so, as requested by Alex Salmond, it would – as Mr Hamilton observes – ‘undoubtedly have been seen as a partisan and political interference’, which ‘would undoubtedly have undermined public confidence in the processes of government to a much greater extent than in fact eventually happened’.

“James Hamilton was appointed by Mr Salmond as an independent adviser on the Scottish ministerial code. He has previously investigated a Labour First Minister of Wales and he has applied himself to this task with rigour and diligence.

"Mr Hamilton is an internationally renowned legal professional with impeccable credentials and no-one should seek to suggest or imply that he has acted anything other than independently and utterly without fear or favour.”

Labour leader Anas Sarwar said “questions of judgement” still needed to be answered by the Scottish Government.

The new Scottish Labour leader said: “Unlike others, we have been clear from the outset that we would not prejudge the outcome of this inquiry.

“We acknowledge the findings of the report and we await the publication of the committee inquiry and whether its members conclude the First Minister misled Parliament.

“What is clear is that this entire process has deeply damaged public trust in our politics at a time of national crisis, and there are absolutely no winners today.

“At the heart of this are two women who have been badly let down by the government, and it remains the case that nobody has taken responsibility.

“There are still questions of judgement and an urgent need to restore trust, confidence and transparency in our institutions.”

Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said Mr Hamilton had not given the First Minister “a clean bill of health”.

“The judgement from James Hamilton does not make the First Minister’s resignation automatic, but no-one can deny that her errors of judgement still make resignation a live consideration,” he said.

Holyrood’s concurrent inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints is understood to have concluded the First Minister misled Parliament around a commitment she allegedly made to Mr Salmond that she would intervene in the process.

The committee has also reportedly found it is “hard to believe” Ms Sturgeon was not aware of concerns around Mr Salmond’s behaviour before November 2017.

The Salmond inquiry report is set to be published at 8am on Tuesday morning.

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