MSPs examining the Scottish government’s unlawful investigation into Alex Salmond yesterday criticised the release of damning legal advice days after Nicola Sturgeon gave evidence.
The first minister appeared before the committee of inquiry on Wednesday but documents published two days later reveal the growing frustration and professional embarrassment felt by lawyers advising the government over its refusal to hand over documents and failure to accept Salmond was almost certain to win his case that their investigation into harassment claims against him was unfair and unlawful. His subsequent victory in court would cost taxpayers more than £600,000.
Deputy first minister Swinney only began releasing the legal advice last week after MSPs threatened a motion of no confidence in him. He said “key legal advice” was being published ahead of Sturgeon’s appearance before the committee. But 11 documents were published after the first minister gave evidence. Seven documents were published on Thursday and four the next day.
Scottish Labour deputy leader and committee member Jackie Baillie said there are still critical papers missing, adding: “The first minister continues to drip feed information. But what is clear is the committee does not have all the legal advice, particularly notes of critical meetings, that they should have.
“The committee is having to piece together what happened as bits of information become available. This is not an acceptable way for the Scottish government to proceed.”
Lib Dem MSP and committee member Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “It was very convenient for the Scottish government that we only got half the picture before the session with the first minister.
“It was frustrating, for example, not to have the evidence about senior counsel threatening to resign in black and white in front of us when speaking to Nicola Sturgeon because she pleaded ignorance of that.”
Conservative MSP and committee member Murdo Fraser said: “It is now clear why the Scottish government did not want the committee to see the information before Nicola Sturgeon gave evidence. The legal papers they did release on Tuesday night only gave a partial picture of the advice that was presented to them at different times.
“We now know counsel were advising the case could not be realistically defended in the middle of December, and there are therefore serious questions as to why the Scottish government continued their defence beyond that point, racking up thousands of pounds in additional legal costs which have had to be met by the Scottish taxpayer.
“Nicola Sturgeon should have had these questions put to her but that was simply not possible because of the deceitful way in which the Scottish government held back these papers.”
Sturgeon promised in January 2019 to “fully co-operate” with the committee into the unlawful inquiry into harassment claims against Salmond but the Scottish government spent months resisting demands for the release of the legal advice.
Releasing the documents, Swinney claimed they “utterly disproved the conspiracy theory” that there was a plot against Salmond.
He said the Scottish government has now “disclosed all of the formal written advice notes received from external counsel during the judicial review which we have identified, as well as a number of other relevant previously legally privileged documents”.
A Scottish government spokesperson said: “The Scottish government has taken unprecedented steps to provide the committee with the information it has requested in line with data protection, confidentiality and legal restrictions.”
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