Nicola Sturgeon told to resign as evidence to harassment complaints committee 'backs Alex Salmond'

Nicola Sturgeon is facing calls to resign and a potential no-confidence vote as evidence submitted to Holyrood’s harassment complaints committee appears to back the accusation that she breached the ministerial code.

The demands for her resignation from Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross come on the eve of her appearance in front of the Salmond inquiry on Wednesday morning.

They come after two additional witnesses provided written submissions to the committee in which they confirmed the meeting with Geoff Aberdein, Alex Salmond’s former chief of staff, on March 29, 2018, was “for the purpose of discussing the complaints”.

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Legal advice around the judicial review brought by Alex Salmond against the Scottish Government has been published.

Kevin Pringle, the SNP’s former communications chief, and Duncan Hamilton, Mr Salmond’s legal adviser, also corroborated the accusation that a name of one of the complainers had been disclosed to Mr Aberdein.

In his written submission, Mr Hamilton said the purpose of the meeting in Parliament on March 29, 2018 was “for the purpose of discussing the complaints”.

He said: “I spoke to Geoff Aberdein on 29th March 2018 after his meeting in the Scottish Parliament. At that time, he intimated that a further meeting would be arranged to discuss the complaints with the First Minister.

"That meeting was arranged for 2nd April 2018. I was invited to that meeting and travelled to it along with Mr Salmond and Mr Aberdein.

“Further, when we arrived, everyone in the room knew exactly why we were there. No introduction to the subject was needed and no one was in any doubt what we were there to discuss.”

On the subject of potential intervention by the First Minister, Mr Hamilton said: “My clear recollection is that her words were ‘if it comes to it, I will intervene’.”

He adds that he believes Ms Sturgeon later changed her mind.

In his evidence, Mr Pringle said: “Based on my contact with Mr Aberdein, I know he was clear that the purpose of the meeting on 29 March 2018 was to discuss the two complaints that had been made against Mr Salmond.”

Ms Sturgeon has consistently denied that she breached the ministerial code despite ‘forgetting’ the March 29 meeting with Mr Aberdein.

In response to a question in Holyrood last week, the First Minister also said that “to the best of her knowledge” the name of a complainant had not been shared with Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff.

Reacting, Mr Ross said the First Minister must now resign and the party would submit a vote of no confidence in Ms Sturgeon.

He said: “Credible witnesses have now backed up Alex Salmond’s claims and the legal advice shows the government knew months in advance that the judicial review was doomed, but they still went on to waste more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money.

“There is no longer any doubt that Nicola Sturgeon lied to the Scottish Parliament and broke the ministerial code on numerous counts.

“No First Minister can be allowed to mislead the Scottish people and continue in office, especially when they have tried to cover up the truth and abused the power of their office in the process.

“The weight of the evidence is overwhelming. Nicola Sturgeon must resign.

“No evidence she can provide tomorrow will counter the claims of numerous witnesses or refute that her government ignored the legal advice for months and lost more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money in the process.

“We will be submitting a vote of no confidence in the First Minister.”

The Greens indicated they would not back the vote of no confidence in Ms Sturgeon at this stage.

Demands for Ms Sturgeon’s resignation came shortly after the key legal advice provided by external counsel to the Scottish Government on the judicial review was published.

The documents show concerns around the “procedural unfairness” of the harassment complaints procedure from the very start of the judicial review.

However, only following the revelation of further documents in mid-December did the case become unstatable, according to counsel.

Advice from the Lord Advocate to the Scottish Government also followed this timeline.

Concerns were first raised about the prior contact between Judith McKinnon, the investigating officer of the complaints, and the complainers in late October, the documents state, when the

external counsel are described as “extremely concerned”.

At this point, on October 31, Roddy Dunlop QC, the dean of the Faculty of Advocates, said it would make “little sense to defend the indefensible”.

On December 6, Mr Dunlop further advised that it would be “less attractive” to continue defending the petition due to the fact defeat would see “far higher” expenses and Mr Salmond “trumpeting far louder”.

However, by December 11, the position of the Scottish Government was still there were “credible arguments to make across the petition”.

By December 19, counsel advised the petition should be conceded due to the government’s position being unstatable.

Ms McKinnon is the subject of the harshest criticism within this part of the legal advice.

Counsel wrote to the Scottish Government on December 19 stating: “Suffice to say that we have each experienced extreme professional embarrassment as a result of assurances which we have given … turning out to be false as a result of the revelation of further documents, highly relevant yet undisclosed”.

The comments from counsel came after two further documents and the details of a meeting between Ms McKinnon and a complainer on January 16, 2018 to “discuss the experience about the alleged misconduct of a former minister” were disclosed at a late stage by the Scottish Government.

Counsel added: “As to the late nature of the revelation, this is unexplained and frankly inexplicable.

"The lack of any mention of the meeting of January 16, 2018 in what is meant to be a sworn affidavit for use in court is, frankly, alarming.

“We are now in a position where we think that maintaining a defence of the appointment of the IO [investigating officer] may be unstatable.”

Deputy first minister John Swinney, who had earlier agreed to publish the key legal advice on the judicial review, said: “These documents are clear. Our legal advice was optimistic about the government’s prospects for success at the start. It became gradually, but progressively less optimistic over time.

“It was only in December that the advice concluded that our case was no longer stateable and we should concede. Indeed, as late as December 11, ministers were advised that we should continue.

“Within a matter of days of being advised that the case was not stateable, we have taken the decision to concede. That was right and proper.

“Significantly, however, this comprehensively disproves claims that we had continued the case in defiance of legal advice. That is categorically untrue and these documents put that beyond doubt."

Commenting on the publication of the legal advice, Scottish Labour deputy leader and committee member Jackie Baillie said: “The comments from counsel make it explicitly clear that the conduct of the investigation and the actions of those involved greatly jeopardised the proceedings.

"That counsel were expressing grave concerns in October and that the Lord Advocate wished to continue with proceedings as late as December 2018 simply beggars belief.

“The Scottish Government’s unlawful handling of harassment complaints appears to be indefensible and I look forward to having the opportunity to question the First Minister on the failings of her government.”

Commenting on the Conservatives’ statement regarding a no confidence motion, a spokesperson for the First Minister said: “The First Minister will address all of the issues raised – and much more besides – at the committee tomorrow, while the independent adviser on the ministerial code will report in due course.

“But to call a vote of no confidence in the middle of a pandemic, before hearing a single word of the First Minister’s evidence, is utterly irresponsible.

“It is for the public to decide who they want to govern Scotland and, while we continue to fight the Covid pandemic, with the election campaign starting in just 20 days, that is precisely what they will be able to do.”

The Salmond inquiry 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 grounds the process was “tainted by apparent bias”.

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

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