'Not in public interest' to release legal advice to Holyrood on Salmond submission

Legal advice provided to Holyrood around the legality of publishing Alex Salmond’s submission on the ministerial code will be kept secret, it has emerged.

Legal advice which saw Alex Salmond's submission to the Hamilton inquiry and harassment complaints committee blocked from publication will be kept secret.

Controversy around the initial decision by the harassment complaints committee not to publish the former first minister’s submission on the ministerial code due to “legal concerns” led to threats from Mr Salmond to pull out from his appearance in front of the inquiry.

The submission accuses his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, of breaching the ministerial code on a number of occasions, including around misleading parliament.

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The initial decision not to publish the submission was despite the contents having been widely reported in the media and published in full online by media outlets.

A revised submission from Mr Salmond was then submitted with the decision on whether to publish delegated by the committee to the Scottish Parliament’s Corporate Body who decided “on balance” that it was possible to publish.

Following its publication, the Crown Office intervened and requested sections of the submission be redacted.

This led to the submission being removed, redacted, and reuploaded to the Scottish Parliament website after legal advice was sought.

However the reasons why will remain secret after the Scottish Parliament said it was not “in the public interest” to publish advice it received from lawyers.

Citing concerns around breaching court orders and data protection laws, parliamentary officials said the public interest was in the “outcomes of the committee’s deliberations”.

Responding to a freedom of information request, parliamentary officials said that something must not be “merely ‘of interest to the public” to be disclosed.

They said: “Whilst the disclosure of the particular legal advice in this case may be of individual interest to a number of members of the public, it is necessary to consider more generally whether it better serves the public to withhold rather than disclose the advice.

“In our view, it is not in the public interest to have access to the legal advice. The inquiry concerns matters of extreme sensitivity on which the Committee required specific targeted advice during the course of the inquiry and may continue to do so until the parliamentary process is complete.

"The public interest lies in the outcomes of the Committee’s deliberations when its report is published, and in knowing that its actions and decisions have been arrived at following receipt of legal advice from an appropriate source.”

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Scottish Liberal Democrat member of the committee, said: "If the Parliament is choosing not to release this information, they will need to explain exactly why it is not in the public interest. All public organisations need to be clear and transparent with the public.

"The inquiry has had enough problems with the Scottish Government's attempts to thwart the public's access to information."

Scottish Conservative spokesman on the Salmond inquiry Murdo Fraser MSP said: “The legal advice should be released.

"We must be as transparent as possible for the public to have confidence in the processes for the investigation.”

A spokesperson for the parliament responded: “The Scottish Parliament is mindful of the principle of transparency but must obey the terms of the Court orders and other legal obligations in relation to data contained in the legal advice provided.”

The refusal to disclose the legal advice comes as the two women complainers at the heart of the issue were interviewed by the committee on Monday.

The committee is expected to publish its report before March 25 when the Scottish Parliament rises for the election period.

James Hamilton QC’s concurrent investigation into any potential ministerial code breach by Nicola Sturgeon is also expected to report pre-election.

The Scottish Government was also contacted for comment.

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