Scottish Tories threaten no confidence motion against John Swinney over Alex Salmond legal advice

The Scottish Conservatives will this week lodge a motion of no confidence in John Swinney unless the Scottish Government makes a U-turn over its repeated refusal to release its legal advice over Alex Salmond’s judicial review.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney could face a motion of no confidence unless the Scottish Government releases its legal advice. Picture: Russell Cheyne/PA WireDeputy First Minister John Swinney could face a motion of no confidence unless the Scottish Government releases its legal advice. Picture: Russell Cheyne/PA Wire
Deputy First Minister John Swinney could face a motion of no confidence unless the Scottish Government releases its legal advice. Picture: Russell Cheyne/PA Wire

Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Tories, accused the deputy first minister of ignoring the Scottish Parliament and withholding evidence concerning the government’s unlawful handling sexual harassment complaints against Mr Salmond.

Mr Ross said the issue was “not about politics” but “about getting the truth,” and stressed that “without the evidence, that won’t happen.”

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The Scottish Parliament has twice voted for the government to release the legal advice, but the committee tasked with scrutinising the government’s handling of the complaints has only received some of the evidence.

Mr Swinney, who is heading the government response to the Holyrood inquiry, has said that legal advice is generally not released in order to ensure that full and frank advice will be provided, without any concerns that it might be made public in future.

He previously told Linda Fabiani, the convener of the harassment committee, that he was keen to find a "practical way" which would allow the advice to be handed over to MSPs, but no such arrangement has been put in place.

The threat of the motion will intensify pressure on Mr Swinney to respect the outcome of the two cross-party parliamentary motions, particularly given the fact the SNP does not command a majority at Holyrood.

The Scottish Conservatives have set a deadline of 24 hours for Mr Swinney to release the advice. Mr Ross said the information was crucial to “uncovering the specific mistakes that lost more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money and let the women at the heart of this investigation down.”

Mr Ross said the move gave the government "one last chance" to release the advice, and that he would "gladly" rescind the threat of a motion should it do so.

He said: "Twice, opposition parties united to call for the legal advice to be released. The cross-party Holyrood committee have pleaded with the government to produce it.

"The government said they would listen but they clearly have not. The legal advice remains hidden.”

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Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Scottish Lib Dem MSP, and a member of the harassment committee, and Willie Rennie, the party’s leader, have they will support the Tory motion, and accused Mr Swinney of standing “in contempt of parliament.”

Mr Rennie said: "There is a simple way for John Swinney to avoid another no confidence vote and that is to release the legal advice as parliament has twice made very clear it expects him to do.

"The Scottish Government have gone out of their way to obstruct the investigation into their handling of some very serious allegations.

"This displays contempt for our parliament and a casual disregard for all those who have raised concerns or are considering whether to do so in the future."

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Mr Salmond has claimed that if the government’s legal advice from October 2018 showed that it was about to lose the judicial review, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon decided to carry on with the case regardless, then it would constitute a breach of the ministerial code.

In his testimony to the committee on Friday, Mr Salmond said: “Everything about that legal advice - even how it has been described in terms - suggests that, on the balance of probabilities, it indicated that the government was about to lose.”

He also told the committee that there were past precedents - such as the blood contamination inquiry - where public interest exceptions allowed for the release of legal advice, and expressed surprise that the government had continued to withhold the documentation.

“The normal assumption would be that ministers would follow a clearly expressed will of the parliament when they are able to do so,” Mr Salmond added.

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If the proposed motion goes to a vote, it would be the second time in less than a year that Mr Swinney would face such a debate on his position.

In August, he endured heavy criticism from opposition parties over a scandal that developed around the qualifications process put in place as a result of Covid-19.

Under the new system, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, would moderate teacher-estimated grades, a process that saw more than 124,000 marks downgraded and disproportionately affected those from more impoverished areas.

He survived that vote thanks to the backing of the Scottish Greens, but the Greens have voted with other opposition parties for the release of the legal advice.

The intervention by Mr Ross comes ahead of what promises to be a highly eventful week as the committee nears the end of its evidence hearings.

Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC is scheduled to appear before the committee on Tuesday morning, where he will be grilled over the Crown Office’s interactions with the inquiry.

Mr Wolffe told MSPs last week that he was not consulted on the Crown Office’s representations to the inquiry over Mr Salmond’s written evidence, which was published in full on the parliament website before being controversially withdrawn. It was later replaced with a redacted version.

He told Holyrood that the representations were made by senior professional prosecutors acting independently, without reference to law officers.

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However, Mr Wolffe is expected to come under intense questioning by the committee in light of Mr Salmond’s testimony, during which he called on him to consider his position. It is understood that at least part of Mr Wolffe’s appearance before the committee will be held in private.

Ms Sturgeon is scheduled to appear as a witness on Wednesday in one of the committee’s final – and most anticipated – hearings before it produces its final report.

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