Alex Salmond: Ministers go to court to stop Nicola Sturgeon letter publication

MINISTERS are to take legal action to prevent the disclosure of just one paragraph of the First Minister’s communications with a senior civil servant around complaints against her predecessor Alex Salmond.

The communication which has been disclosed after a Freedom of Information request discussed a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment.

The Scottish Government has decided to take the case to the Court of Session while choosing not to disclose a few lines in a letter sent to Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, who was investigating allegations of sexual misconduct which Salmond later successfully challenged in court.

It details Nicola Sturgeon’s contacts with Salmond about the case and explains how the former First Minister believed the Scottish Government process was “unlawful”.

It reveals that Sturgeon had talked with Evans “on many occasions [about] the importance of a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harrassment within the Scottish Government”.

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In March, a jury found Salmond not guilty on 12 of the sexual assault charges facing him, while another was found not proven. Salmond said he was innocent of all the charges against him throughout the two-week trial.

During his trial, Salmond said some of the charges against him were “fabrications for a political purpose”. Sturgeon, on the other hand, dismissed claims that her allies in the party conspired against Salmond as a “heap of nonsense”.

Salmond was also the subject of an investigation by civil servants after allegations of sexual misconduct, which he later successfully challenged in court.

In the letter, Sturgeon says that she had been contacted twice by Salmond and on both occasions, she said “it would not be appropriate for me to seek to intervene in the process in any way and I did not do so”.

A paragraph is redacted before the First Minister explains that after “careful consideration, I decided not to inform you of these approaches as I did not want there to be any suggestion that I was seeking to intervene in the process”.

But after a further approach from Salmond and “given its nature and that it represents a potential challenge to the process, I have decided that I should make you aware of it”.

She informed the Permanent Secretary that Salmond considered the process being followed by the Scottish Government to be “unlawful”.

And she wrote that Salmond had legal advice to the effect that he would be successful in an application for a judicial review of the process.

And if any finding is made against him, she said it was his intention to lodge an application for judicial review “to seek to have the process declared unlawful”.

Ministers say the redacted paragraph in that letter “is exempt information” for the purposes of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act “and so ought not to be disclosed”.

They said that as the Scottish Information Commissioner has required them to take the step of disclosing the letter “in its entirety”, they have decided to appeal the decision to the Court of Session.

They say that as there is an appeal they do not have to disclose the paragraph.

Sturgeon tells the Permanent Secretary in the letter: “I want to be very clear that my purpose sending this note is not to ask you to cease the investigation or to influence its course in any way – it is to be transparent with you about my knowledge of a potential challenge to the process.

“You and I have discussed on many occasions the importance of a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment within the Scottish Government and the importance to building confidence in such an approach of taking such complaints seriously and ensuring proper investigation.”

Nicola Sturgeon referred herself to an independent ministerial ethics body in January, 2019, bowing to intense pressure to allow an investigation into her actions in the Alex Salmond sexual harassment case.

The First Minister’s move followed her admission that she held a secret meeting with Salmond at her home, in the presence of her government-employed chief of staff and one of Salmond’s advisers, where he briefed her on a Scottish government inquiry into sexual harassment allegations against him.

Opposition parties said that meeting and a subsequent phone call with Salmond were in clear breach of the ministerial code since discussions with outsiders on government business had to be immediately reported to civil servants.

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Sturgeon previously admitted it took two months before she raised the meeting and phone call with Evans, and only did so because she was about to meet Salmond for a second time.

The code states meetings on official government business have to be set up through the government office and that detailed records need to be made of those contacts.

It adds: “If ministers meet external organisations or individuals and find themselves discussing official business without an official present – for example, at a party conference, social occasion or on holiday – any significant content (such as substantive issues relating to government decisions or contracts) should be passed back to their private offices as soon as possible after the event.”

On June 6, 2018 Sturgeon wrote to Evans to tell her about her meeting and that she knew about the investigation into Salmond.

That newly disclosed letter shows that Sturgeon advised Evans that legal action by Salmond against the Scottish government was imminent. She denied that was an intervention in the inquiry.

“I am clear that the seniority, political affiliation or relationship to me or my government of any person subject to a complaint should have no bearing on how it’s handled. To that end, you have my support in taking whatever steps you consider necessary and appropriate to investigate any complaint about inappropriate conduct within the Scottish Government,” she wrote.

“It remains my view that it would be inappropriate for us to discuss the substance of the investigation prior to its conclusion.

“I intend to inform the former First Minister that I have told you about his approach to me and to advise him again that it would not be appropriate for me to intervene in the process.

“Finally, I am also mindful of the public interest considerations that arise when allegations of this nature are made. At this stage, however, it is my view that the interest of ensuring that the conduct of the investigation is fair to all parties and respects the confidentiality of the complainant(s) is the priority.”

Sturgeon and Salmond were said to have had a total of three face-to-face meetings and two phone calls where the investigation was discussed over a 15-week period in the summer of 2018.

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