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Salmond inquiry: MSPs ‘frustrated’ by wait for evidence

Former First Minister Alex Salmond.
Former First Minister Alex Salmond.

Alex Salmond has been criticised by MSPs for a delay in submitting written evidence to the Holyrood committee investigating the handling of harassment complaints against him.

MSPs have written to Mr Salmond’s lawyer to say they are “frustrated” by the former first minister’s approach to their inquiry.

Linda Fabiani, the convener of the Salmond inquiry committee, said “numerous deadlines” had been set for receipt of the former politician’s written submission, which witnesses provide before giving evidence to the inquiry in person.

Despite Mr Salmond’s lawyers producing formal productions for his successful judicial review against the Scottish Government, a written submission of his evidence has yet to be received.

In another letter on behalf of the committee, Ms Fabiani has also accused the Scottish Government of a “totally unacceptable” delay in producing documents when she wrote to Deputy First Minister John Swinney.

Harassment claims

The Salmond inquiry’s struggle to obtain all the documents it wants for its investigation has been a long-standing theme since it was established.

The inquiry has been set up to examine the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment claims made against Mr Salmond.

Mr Salmond successfully took the Scottish Government to court over the way it dealt with the complaints about his behaviour. His victory in the judicial review led to the government paying out more than £500,000 in taxpayers’ money for Mr Salmond’s legal costs.

In a separate criminal case, Mr Salmond was cleared of all sex offence charges after a trial earlier this year.

In her letter to the former first minister’s lawyer, David McKie of Levy and McRae, Ms Fabiani said the committee was publishing his “unprompted letters” in the “interests of openness and transparency, but is becoming frustrated that Mr Salmond considers that he can make points of his own selection to the committee, when he wishes, whilst not providing information that the committee prioritises the most to progress its scrutiny”.

Committee convener Linda Fabiani.

Ms Fabiani acknowledged that Levy and McRae suggested Mr Salmond’s written evidence was “limited by his inability to share or refer to evidence” from his criminal trial.

She added that MSPs on the Salmond inquiry were now seeking the release of relevant evidence from the trial via a request to the Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC.

But Ms Fabiani argued that Mr Salmond could provide a submission based on information available now and update it later.

Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC.

Ms Fabiani said: “The committee acknowledges therefore the restrictions placed on the former First Minister in relation to the provision of documents but repeats what is has said previously on numerous occasions, that it is imperative that Mr Salmond provides his account by way of a written submission.

“The committee has also repeatedly said that your client should make a submission to the extent to which he is able at this point and can provide supplementary evidence and documentation at a later date if need be.”

Legal privilege

In her letter to Mr Swinney, Ms Fabiani complained the committee was “still finding out basic information” during oral evidence sessions which should have been provided in advance by the Scottish Government.

The committee was concerned by the extent to which information was being subjected to legal privilege – the convention by which governments do not share legal advice.

The letter was written in the same week that a majority of MSPs voted for the Scottish Government to provide the legal advice it received before conceding the judicial review to Mr Salmond.

Ms Fabiani said it was “totally unacceptable” that the Scottish Government had not sought to obtain documents earlier.

Team awaits ‘crucial information’

A spokesperson for Mr Salmond said: “Mr Salmond will make no public comment until he presents his statement to the committee.

“His legal team has explained to Ms Fabiani that he cannot do that until the Crown lifts the threat of criminal prosecution if he submits or even identifies key documents which the Scottish Government and others have thus far withheld from the committee.

“The committee has now written to the Lord Advocate, asking for this crucial information to be released  and we await a positive reply.

“Earlier this week, in order to be helpful to the committee and at their request Mr Salmond waived legal privilege over his own legal advice on his successful judicial review , submitted these documents to the committee which has now published them. We note that Parliament has now voted to call on the Government to publish their legal advice.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “As we have made clear, not only is the government providing all relevant material to the committee, we intend to initiate legal proceedings seeking to allow the release of further documents.

“As the committee itself acknowledges, these are complex and sensitive matters, and everyone must act within the confidentiality and legal constraints that apply.

“We have already provided more than 1,000 pages of relevant material and Scottish Government witnesses have provided more than 14 hours of oral evidence so far.

“Successive Scottish and UK governments have not disclosed the source or content of legal advice other than in the most exceptional circumstances.

“Legal privilege is inherent to the functioning of good government and the rule of law. It’s important that the legal advice which Ministers and their officials receive is full and frank, and not affected by concerns about it subsequently becoming public.

“As the Deputy First Minister said this week, Ministers are now considering their response to the parliamentary vote this week about the release of legal advice, consistent with their obligations under the Ministerial Code. The Deputy First Minister will then update Parliament.”

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