Nicola Sturgeon misled the Scottish parliament over the Alex Salmond crisis, a Holyrood inquiry has concluded after a narrow majority vote, it is understood.
A special Holyrood committee ruled, by five votes to four, that Scotland’s first minister gave an “inaccurate” account of her meetings with Salmond in 2018 during evidence on oath to MSPs earlier this month.
That remarkable conclusion amounts to an accusation Sturgeon misled parliament – but the committee has stopped short of ruling she did so “knowingly”. Knowingly misleading parliament would be a clear breach of the ministerial code and a resignation matter.
While MSPs did not accuse Sturgeon of deliberately misleading the committee, its finding will significantly increase pressure on her and the Scottish National party, only seven weeks before May’s Holyrood elections.
Sturgeon told Sky News on Thursday evening she stood by all her evidence to the committee. “What has been clear is that opposition members of this committee made their minds up before I uttered a single word of evidence. Their public comments have made that clear,” she said.
“So this very partisan leak tonight before they’ve actually finalised the report is not that surprising.
“Let’s wait and see the final report, but more important the question of whether or not I breached the ministerial code is being considered independently by [former director of public prosecutions in Ireland]James Hamilton and I hope and expect he will publish that report soon.”
The Scottish Conservatives are preparing a no confidence motion against Sturgeon at Holyrood. Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said the party would wait to see the final report, which is expected on Tuesday, but added it already believed she had misled Holyrood and, as a result, she should quit.
“We have called out the first minister based on the overwhelming evidence that she misled parliament,” he said. “We will continue to hold her to the same standards as previous first ministers of Scotland and demand that she resigns.”
In a vote that split the committee, it found the first minister’s evidence about what she said to Salmond, her predecessor as SNP leader, when they met at her home in April 2018 to discuss the confidential government inquiry into sexual harassment claims against him was incorrect.
Sturgeon gave them “an inaccurate account of what happened and she has misled the committee on this matter,” the report is expected to say. “This is a potential breach of the ministerial code.”
The report is expected to be published on Tuesday, the day before Holyrood is dissolved for the May election campaign, after its nine MSPs held a series of meetings on Thursday to finalise its conclusions.
It is thought the critical five-four vote, late on Thursday afternoon, saw MSPs dividing on party lines. The four SNP members, including committee chair Linda Fabiani, a former SNP minister and currently Holyrood’s deputy presiding officer, voted against the finding Sturgeon misled the committee. The five opposition MSPs, two Tories, a Labour, Liberal Democrat and independent MSP, voted in favour of that finding.
Sturgeon’s spokesperson said the question of whether she broke the ministerial code was being investigated separately by Hamilton. In a criticism of the committee, he said Hamilton was doing so “independently” and his report was expected to be received and published soon.
Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, said he would not prejudge the final report’s conclusions but said: “If it does conclude that the first minister has misled parliament and potentially breached the ministerial code then that is incredibly serious.
“This is about the integrity of our Scottish parliament and upholding standards in public life. The separate Hamilton inquiry has yet to report, and all parties must be given due process, however the code which the first minister has promised to follow by the letter is clear – any minister who is found in breach of the ministerial code has a duty to resign.”
The inquiry was set up after Salmond won a legal challenge to the Scottish government in January 2019 over its internal inquiry into sexual harassment complaints from two female civil servants.
The government accepted the inquiry was “tainted by apparent bias” and unlawful because it had appointed a personnel official to lead the investigation even though she had had prior contact with the complainants. Salmond was later awarded £512,000 in legal costs; the court ruled such a large amount was justified because the government had taken months to disclose evidence to the court about that contact.
In March 2020, Salmond was acquitted of 13 charges of sexual assault including one of attempted rape, by a high court jury in Edinburgh. Those charges included the alleged assault of the two officials whose cases were at the centre of the botched government inquiry.
When she gave evidence to the Holyrood inquiry on 3 March, Sturgeon admitted the government had made a “dreadful, catastrophic” mistake by failing to see that appointment was a potentially unlawful conflict of interest. “Two women were failed and taxpayers’ money was lost,” she said. “I deeply regret that.”
Source: The Guardian