Nicola Sturgeon accused of sheer hypocrisy over Alex Salmond papers

Nicola Sturgeon accused of sheer hypocrisy over Alex Salmond papers

Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of “sheer hypocrisy” over her government’s failure to publish legal advice from its court battle with Alex Salmond.

MSPs have twice voted for the government to hand over papers to a special inquiry committee.

Scottish Conservative group leader Ruth Davidson said the fact they had not yet done so suggested Ms Sturgeon “has something to hide”.

The first minister said the government was cooperating fully with the inquiry.

And she said it was “right and proper” that time was taken to consider whether to waive legal privilege and hand over the papers.

The ministerial code states that legal advice should not be divulged outside of exceptional circumstances, and that law officers must give their consent before this can happen.

A Holyrood committee was set up to review the government’s botched investigation of harassment complaints against Mr Salmond.

The government had conceded its approach had been unlawful after the former first minister challenged it in a judicial review – and agreed to pay him £500,000 in legal expenses.

The inquiry committee has repeatedly asked to see the Scottish government’s legal advice from the case, but Deputy First Minister John Swinney told them it was an “important legal principle” that such advice be kept private.

He argued that publishing would undermine the ability of ministers to seek full and frank advice from lawyers in future.

MSPs have now voted to urge the government divulge the advice twice inside the span of three weeks, most recently on Wednesday by a margin of 65 to 55.

Ms Davidson pointed out that the first minister had previously pledged to “provide whatever material” the committee requested, and asked why she had “broken her promise”.

The Scottish Tory MSP suggested that “the only conceivable reason she is breaking her promise is because she has something to hide”.

Ms Sturgeon insisted that the government was cooperating, and that she had recused herself from the decision-making process as the committee is in part investigating her actions.

She said the ministerial code stipulated that a certain process must be followed before advice could be divulged, and said this was being considered by Mr Swinney.

Ms Davidson said Ms Sturgeon had in the past “lectured people about the will of parliament”, and said it was “sheer hypocrisy” that her government was now failing to abide by it.

She added: “This cynical obfuscation only serves to show why this advice needs to be brought into the open.”

Ms Sturgeon replied: “The government is not ignoring the votes in parliament, what it is doing is going through the process that the ministerial code explicitly sets out before legal advice can be divulged.

“If we didn’t go through that process, we would be breaching the ministerial code.”

The inquiry committee is to resume hearings in the coming week, having been unable to call two civil servants as witnesses on Tuesday because the government said papers supporting their evidence were not yet ready to be published.

Convener Linda Fabiani – an SNP MSP – has repeatedly hit out at “prevarication” and “obstruction” by the key players involved.

Ministers say they are waiting for Mr Salmond’s lawyers to sign off hundreds of documents before the are released to the committee – and say they are prepared to go to court to settle the matter if no agreement can be reached.

Meanwhile Mr Salmond’s lawyers say many of the papers they have been handed are irrelevant – but that others are potentially significant, and should have been handed over to them during either the judicial review case or Mr Salmond’s criminal trial, which saw him acquitted of 13 charges of sexual assault.

They have also asked both the government and the committee to commit to funding Mr Salmond’s representation, saying it “cannot be fair” that he as a private citizen has spent “hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds supporting this inquiry”.

In Wednesday’s debate, committee member Murdo Fraser said the government was “cynically running down the clock on the inquiry” by stalling over whether to hand over key documents.

Another committee member, Jackie Baillie, said Mr Swinney’s pace in considering the matter “makes a snail look like a sprinter”, adding that the government was “treating parliament with contempt”.

Mr Swinney replied that this was not a matter of releasing “a few documents”, and that hundreds of pages would have to be reviewed and redacted to be in line with court requirements and data protection law.

He said: “This would be a serious and significant decision for the government to take, and an equally serious and significant undertaking to fulfil.”

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