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‘It felt like arriving late for an exam’: MSPs view Salmond inquiry document

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A civil service document that had been controversially withheld from the Salmond inquiry has been described as “illuminating” after MSPs were finally shown a copy.

The contents of the paper are expected to influence questioning of witnesses when the Scottish Parliament inquiry reconvenes in the New Year.

Members of the Holyrood committee investigating the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond were given sight of the secret paper on condition they did not disclose its contents.

In a committee room set aside in the Scottish Parliament, socially distanced MSPs pored over the paper in an atmosphere one compared to sitting an exam.

Former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond.

The document was compiled by a senior civil servant in December 2018, just before the Scottish Government conceded defeat to Mr Salmond in the civil court case which the former first minister took against the administration he used to lead.

The paper was written by Sarah Davidson when she was the Scottish Government’s director general for organisational development and operations.

The document is said to contain details of the cost to the public purse of fighting the judicial review successfully taken against the Scottish Government by Mr Salmond.

It is also said to cover the legal advice received by the government relating to Mr Salmond’s civil challenge.

Salmond inquiry document
Former senior civil servant Sarah Davidson.

Legal privilege

The Scottish Government had refused to hand over the entire document to the inquiry, citing legal privilege, a decision that caused anger among the cross-party committee of MSPs tasked with leading the investigation.

Last month committee convener Linda Fabiani of the SNP wrote to the Scottish Government to express concern at the “extent” that legal privilege was being used to withhold information, giving Ms Davidson’s document as an example.

Throughout the inquiry, the Scottish Government has been attacked for using privilege as a reason for not disclosing its legal advice. The committee believes the advice should be seen by its members if they are to fully understand the Scottish Government’s approach to the court action.

The Holyrood inquiry was set up after the Court of Session ruled in January 2019 that the government’s internal investigation into claims against Mr Salmond was tainted with apparent bias.

The judgement resulted in more than £500,000 in public money going towards the former first minister’s legal costs.

The Scottish Government faces mounting pressure to release the legal advice after two parliamentary votes in favour of its disclosure. In the meantime, the Scottish Government reached an agreement with the committee that its members could read Ms Davidson’s document in a room set aside in the Scottish Parliament.

Finding Ikea instructions…

Members were given a window of two hours to view the document in committee room one at Holyrood on condition they did not reveal its contents and did not take their copy away with them.

Afterwards committee member Alex Cole-Hamilton of the Lib Dems described the document as “meaty”.

“I definitely think it was a worthwhile exercise,” he said. “It has certainly given me more questions that I will be pushing for more detail on. I think we have a better picture as to how things happened now than we did beforehand so it certainly was not a wasted session, at all.

“We did learn some new things, which we will certainly want to cross examine with witnesses.”

Salmond inquiry document
Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP.

“It was extensive and illuminating. It was a bit like finding the instructions to an Ikea flatpack that you didn’t have previously,” he added.

Committee members were given numbered unredacted copies of the document with their names on, which they handed in at the end of the session. Notes could only be made on the documents themselves – not on separate pieces of paper.

“It felt like arriving late for an exam. There was a hushed silence and people (other MSPs) hunched over papers,” Mr Cole-Hamilton said.

Plans to make a redacted version of the document public shortly after it had been viewed by MSPs was delayed but the redacted version is expected to be made available in due course.

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