What the Hamilton inquiry into Nicola Sturgeon's actions says

It was seven months in the making, but the inquiry report by former Irish prosecutor James Hamilton into whether or not Nicola Sturgeon breached any parts of the ministerial code has finally been published.

The senior counsel, who was appointed by Alex Salmond to the role of independent advisor to the Scottish Government on the ministerial code in 2013, has found in favour of the First Minister and cleared her of any rule breaking.

What are the main findings?

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Mr Hamilton concluded Ms Sturgeon did not breach the code by failing to mention a meeting, regarded as pivotal by some, as to when she first knew of allegations against Mr Salmond.

Nicola Sturgeon has been cleared of ministerial code breaches.
Nicola Sturgeon has been cleared of ministerial code breaches.

However, he does say it is for the Scottish Parliament to decide, rather than he, whether it was misled over when Ms Sturgeon first knew of the complaints against Mr Salmond, as while her narrative was “technically correct”, it was “incomplete”.

Mr Hamilton also ruled there was no breach of the code by Ms Sturgeon by her not intervening in the process to ensure mediation between Mr Salmond and the complainers.

The barrister also cleared her of any breaches over a failure to record meetings and phone conversations with her predecessor – though he stresses he does not believe the original meeting between them was “party business”.

An alleged breach by failing to act more swiftly on legal counsel’s concerns the government would lose to him at judicial review was also dismissed.

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

What was James Hamilton’s assessment of the key meetings?

While much of Mr Hamilton’s report covers the same ground as the Holyrood committee inquiry into the government’s handling of the complaints against Mr Salmond, he was also able to speak to some of those involved whose evidence was not able to be heard by MSPs, because of legal restrictions.

And Mr Hamilton finds that Geoff Aberdein, who was Mr Salmond’s chief of staff, has a “credible” version of events around a meeting he had with a senior government official during which he claims he was told the name of one of the complainers. On the contested March 29, 2018 meeting Mr Aberdein had with Ms Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament, Mr Hamilton says both Mr Aberdein and the First Minister have “convincing” recollections.

In his report, Mr Hamilton says while it is “regrettable” Ms Sturgeon failed to mention that meeting in a statement she made to Parliament on 8 January 2019 about her meetings with Mr Salmond, “in my opinion, her explanation for why she did not recall this meeting ... while inevitably likely to be greeted with suspicion, even scepticism by some, is not impossible”.

“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.

Why Sturgeon’s meeting with Salmond was not ‘party business’

On whether her meeting with Mr Salmond on April 2, 2018 at her home was government or party business, Mr Hamilton states that Ms Sturgeon never claimed it was the latter.

But he adds: “She did deny that the meetings were government meetings, which she explained on the basis that she had no responsibility for operating the government’s harassment complaints procedure and indeed no knowledge of the complaints except for what Mr Salmond told her.”

Mr Hamilton says he accepts Ms Sturgeon’s statement that her agreeing to meet Mr Salmond was “personal and political”. He adds: “She may have sought to underscore this by hosting it in her private home with no permanent civil servant present and no expenditure of public money. It could not in my opinion be characterised as a party meeting.

"Members of political parties do not ordinarily attend party meetings accompanied by their lawyers, and when the First Minister’s husband, who is chairman of the SNP, arrived home, he did not join the meeting.

"It is difficult not to conclude, therefore, that an aspect of the meeting concerned this government procedure, although of course this was a government procedure from which the First Minister was excluded by its express terms as a result of the policy adopted in 2017, and she claims that her involvement was only to explain why she could not and would not become involved.”

Mr Hamilton says despite both Mr Salmond and his advocate, Duncan Hamilton, stating Ms Sturgeon agreed to intervene, if she had it “would undoubtedly have been seen as a partisan and political interference in a process which was then underway, and as an interference of a nature which the procedure was expressly designed to prevent”.

What about other alleged breaches of the ministerial code?

As far as the legal advice on defending the government in Mr Salmond’s judicial review, the report says Mr Salmond is "under the misapprehension that the government is under a duty to withdraw a case if advised that there is less than an evens chance of winning.

"There is no such rule and the prediction of the outcome of cases is not an exact science,” he says. “There is, in my opinion, no evidence whatsoever that the First Minister acted improperly or in breach of the ministerial code with respect to Mr Salmond’s petition."

Should Sturgeon have made records of her meetings with Salmond?

Finally, on Ms Sturgeon’s failure to log her meetings with Mr Salmond, he says the code is clear that the "primary, and possibly the sole purpose of this provision is to deal with meetings with people and organisations which are held or can be considered as part of the formulation of government policy”.

He adds: “Ministers must have numerous contacts every day which are not required to be recorded under this provision.

"In my opinion, any person who was being proceeded against under the procedure, or for that matter was making a complaint under its provisions, was entitled to raise an issue without the matter being recorded under these provisions of the code.

"I fully accept the logic of the First Minister’s position that it would have been impossible to record such meetings or discussions without a risk of prejudicing the proceedings or interfering with their confidentiality.”

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