Developments surrounding the Scottish parliament’s harassment committee could see a reversal of the decision that prompted the non-appearance of former first minister Alex Salmond.
According to members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs) investigating how the Scottish government mishandled harassment complaints against him, the decision of a Scottish judge removes the obstacle to his appearance.
Mr Salmond has refused to appear so far, unhappy with its decision not to publish his submitted evidence which he regards as critical, and which accuses First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of breaking the ministerial code.
Now a Scottish judge has agreed to a change in the court order that led to the parliament’s block on publication.
Members of the investigating committee have called an emergency meeting to discuss their next move, believing the way is now clear to re-invite Mr Salmond to appear before them.
Scottish Conservative spokesman on the inquiry, Murdo Fraser MSP, said: “We have been saying from the outset that our committee will not be able to do its job properly unless we are able to question Alex Salmond in person.
“While we await the full details of the revised order and what implications it will have, I am satisfied that we now have grounds to compel Salmond to attend.
“(Nicola) Sturgeon has already lied to parliament by saying she and her party would ensure full co-operation with the inquiry. The reality has been a cynical and determined campaign to thwart us at every turn.
“People may be confused and frustrated at this despicable SNP chicanery. It is therefore vital for the committee shows our teeth. A failure to do the right thing would undermine the reputation of our parliament.”
Mr Salmond was due to appear before Holyrood’s harassment committee last Tuesday but he declined, calling its constraints set on his evidence “offensive”.
His submission alleges that Nicola Sturgeon, his successor as SNP leader and first minister, broke the ministerial code on several occasions.
These include events in the spring of 2018.
He claims that she misled parliament by claiming she first learned of a government investigation into complaints against him in a meeting between the pair at her house on 2 April 2018.
Sky News revealed an account of a meeting she attended four days earlier – on 29 March – which indicated that its discussions included the government investigation, before her declared date.
To discuss government business without keeping a record of it would constitute a breach of the ministerial code. The code dictates that, in the event of a breach, a minister would be expected to resign.
No record was kept of the meetings on 29 March and 2 April. Ms Sturgeon has insisted the 2 April meeting was SNP party business.
Ms Sturgeon is currently facing a separate inquiry into whether or not she breached the ministerial code, having referred herself for investigation.
The Spectator magazine applied to a Scottish judge, Lady Dorrian, to vary legal restrictions that had prompted the Scottish Parliament’s refusal to publish Alex Salmond’s evidence.
The judge agreed to vary a court order, in response to the magazine’s request, although she has yet to publish the full details of her decision.
Scottish Labour interim leader and committee member Jackie Baillie MSP said: “This decision presents the committee with the opportunity to publish the evidence and question Mr Salmond – we must seize that opportunity with both hands.
“It is clear from today’s decision that the publication of the evidence is in the public interest and that it may be used by the committee.
“It is the duty of the committee to get to the bottom of this fiasco and understand why the Scottish government’s procedures were so flawed and why the women involved were badly let down.
“Failure to seize this opportunity would be most unfortunate for the credibility of the committee and its work.”
As things stand, Nicola Sturgeon is scheduled to be the last witness to appear before the harassment committee next Tuesday.
In a 2018/19 judicial review, Alex Salmond successfully challenged the legality of the Scottish government’s inquiry into harassment complaints against by two female civil servants.
The inquiry was ruled “unlawful” and “tainted by bias” by a court and the taxpayer was left with a bill of more than £500,000.
Separately, Mr Salmond was acquitted of sexual assault charges at a criminal trial in March 2020.
A Scottish government spokesperson said: “The first minister stands by what she has said to parliament and by her written evidence to the committee, and looks forward to answering questions at the committee next week.
“We have taken unprecedented steps to support the committee with access to relevant information and oral and written evidence from witnesses to allow it to fulfil its remit.”
In a letter to the harassment committee, David McKie, Mr Salmond’s solicitor, wrote: “We hope immediately to be in a position to re-submit both Mr Salmond’s submissions on the ministerial code and his final submission.
Our client hopes that today’s decision will enable publication of the relevant evidence and thereafter an early oral evidence session.