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Holyrood inquiry

Sturgeon: ‘plot claim against Salmond is absurd’

Nicola Sturgeon swearing the oath

An emotional Nicola Sturgeon today firmly rebutted suggestions of a conspiracy against Alex Salmond and said she had acted “properly and appropriately” in handling complaints against him.

Facing the committee of MSPs investigating the government’s handling of the complaints of harassment by her predecessor, she admitted that as a result of a mistake that was made, “a very serious mistake”, in the investigation, two women were failed and taxpayers’ money was lost.

“I deeply regret that.

“Although I was not aware of the error at the time, I am the head of the Scottish Government, and so I want to take this opportunity to say sorry to the two women involved and to the wider public.

“I also accept – without any reservation – that my actions deserve to be scrutinised.”

Clearly trying to contain her composure, the First Minister said she was “relieved” to be finally giving her evidence in a case which has created division in the SNP.

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Ms Sturgeon said that although Mr Salmond had been cleared by a jury he had told her his behaviour “was not always appropriate”

She expressed her dismay that during six hours of testimony last Friday Mr Salmond had not uttered “a single word of regret, reflection or even simple acknowledgement” of that behaviour.

In her opening remarks she said: “I feel I must rebut the absurd suggestion that anyone acted with malice or as part of a plot against Alex Salmond. That claim is not based on any fact.

“What happened is this… and it is simple…a number of women made serious complaints about Alex Salmond’s behaviour. The government, despite the mistake it undoubtedly made, tried to do the right thing.

“As First Minister I refused to followed the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and connections to get what he wants. The polic conducted an independent criminal investigation, the Crown Office… considered the evidence and decided there was a case to answer.

“A court and a jury did their job and now this committee and an independent investigation are considering what happened and why.

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“For my part I am, if not relishing the prospect, relieved to be finally facing this committee.

“But given all that has brought us to this moment being here also makes me really sad that in all the legitimate consideration of this sometimes the personal and human elements of this situation are lost.

“Alex spoke on Friday about what a nightmare the last couple of years have been for him and I don’t doubt that. I have thought often about the impact on him.

“He is someone I cared about for a long time and maybe that is why on Friday I found myself searching for any sign, any sign at all, he recognised how difficult this has been for others too.

Alex Salmond

Alex Salmond addressing the inquiry on Friday

“First and foremost for women who believed his behaviour towards them was inappropriate but also for those of us who have campaigned with him, worked with him, cared for him and considered him a friend and now stand unfairly accused of plotting against him.

“That he was acquitted by a jury of criminal conduct is beyond question, but I know just from what he told me that his behaviour was not always appropriate, and yet after six hours of testimony [at Friday’s hearing] there was not a single word of regret, reflection or even simple acknowledgement of that.

“I can only hope that in private the reality might be different.”

Regarding her own actions, Ms Sturgeon said: “I have never claimed in this or anything else to be infallible. I have searched my soul on all of this many, many times over.

“It may very well be that I didn’t get everything right, that is for others to judge, but in one of the most invidious political and personal situations I have ever faced I believe I acted properly and appropriately and that overall I made the best judgement I could.”

Regarding her meeting with Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein on 29 March 2018 she said the purpose of the conversation was to arrange a meeting with Mr Salmond as quickly as possible. Mr Aberdein did indicate that a harassment issue had arisen, she says, but this was in general terms.

The First Minister said what she recalls most strongly about the conversation was Mr Salmond’s welfare being raised and that he might be considering resigning from the SNP.

She said she wishes her memory of the conversation with Mr Aberdein was “more vivid” adding that “it was the detail of the complaints under the procedure that I was given on 2 April that was significant and indeed shocking.”

Transcript of her comments on the meetings:

Alex has claimed in his testimony to the Committee that the meeting in my home on the 2 April took place with a shared understanding, on the part of all the participants, of the issues for discussion.

In other words, that he turned up to the meeting believing I already knew everything.

I think it is worth noting, even just in passing that in fact, this represents a change in his position.

On 14 January 2019, after the conclusion of the Judicial Review, a spokesperson issued this comment on his behalf:

“Alex has no certainty as to the state of knowledge of the first minister before then” – by which he meant 2 April.

A brief account of what happened on 2 April suggests – as per his comment in January 2019 – that he did not assume full knowledge on my part in advance.

When he arrived at my house he was insistent that he speak to me entirely privately – away from his former Chief of Staff, Geoff Aberdein and Duncan Hamilton, who had accompanied him, and my Chief of Staff who was with me.

That would hardly have been necessary had there already been a shared understanding on the part of all of us.

He then asked me to read a letter he had received from the Permanent Secretary.

This letter set out the fact that complaints of sexual harassment had been made against him by two individuals, made clear that these complaints were being investigated under the Procedure adopted at the end of 2017, and it set out the details of what he was alleged to have done.

Reading this letter is a moment in my life that I will never forget.

And although he denied the allegations, he gave me his account of one of the incidents complained of, which he said he had apologised for at the time.

What he described constituted, in my view, deeply inappropriate behaviour on his part – perhaps another reason why that moment is embedded so strongly in my mind.

At the time he was showing me the letter and outlining his account, Geoff and Duncan were doing the same with my Chief of Staff.

Again, this would seem unnecessary had she and I known everything in advance.

Questions have been raised about a conversation I had three days earlier – on 29 March 2018 – with Geoff Aberdein and another individual.

I have not seen Mr Aberdein’s own account of that conversation.

However, I obviously know the account Mr Salmond has given of the meeting – although he also said on Friday that he had not been given a read-out of it.

Let me say upfront that I have no wish to question the sincerity of Geoff’s recollection. Geoff Aberdeen is someone I remain extremely fond of, but it is clear that my recollection is different and that I did not and do not attach the same significance to that discussion that he has.

The purpose of the conversation seemed to be to pursuade me to meet with Alex as soon as possible – which I did agree to do.

Geoff did indicate that a harassment-type issue had arisen, but my recollection is that he did so in general terms.   Since an approach from Sky News in November 2017, I had harboured a lingering suspicion that such issues in relation to Mr Salmond might rear their head – so hearing of a potential issue would not have been, in itself, a massive shock.

What I recall most strongly about the conversation is how worried Geoff seemed to be about Alex’ welfare and state of mind – which, as a friend, concerned me.

He also said he thought Alex might be considering resigning his party membership.

It was these factors that led me to meet him, and it was these factors that placed the meeting on 2 April firmly in the personal and party space.

Not unreasonably at all, some people have asked how I could have forgotten the conversation on 29 March. I certainly wish my memory of it was more vivid.

But as I have stated, it was the detail of the complaints under the Procedure that I was given on 2 April that was significant and indeed shocking.

That was the moment at which any suspicions I had or general awareness that there was a problem became actual knowledge.

It is also worth saying that even if I had known on 29 March everything I learned on 2 April, my actions wouldn’t necessarily have been any different.

Given what I was told about the distress Alex was in and how it was suggested to me he might be intending to handle matters, it is likely that I would still have agreed to meet him – as a friend and as his party leader. 

And, as I set out in written evidence, my decision not to record the meeting on 2 April wasn’t about the classification I gave it – it was because I did not want to compromise the independence or the confidentiality of the process that was underway.

All of which begs the question of why I would have gone to great lengths to conceal a conversation that had taken place a mere 3 days earlier.

Let me turn now to my decision not to immediately report the contact.

Sections 4.22 and 4.23 of the Ministerial Code seek to guard against undisclosed outside influence on decisions that Ministers are involved in and likely to have an influence on, such as changes in policy or the awarding of contracts.

This situation, as I saw it, was the opposite of that.

The terms of the Procedure excluded me from any investigation into a former minister. I had no role in the process and should not even have known that an investigation was underway.

So, in my judgment, the undue influence that section 4 is designed to avoid would have been more likely to arise had those conducting the investigation been informed that I knew about it.

I didn’t want to take the risk that they might be influenced, even subconsciously, by any assumption of how I might want the matter handled.

Their ability to do the job independently would be best protected by me saying nothing.

It is also my reading of the Code that had I reported it, the fact of my meeting with Alex Salmond would have had to be made public, potentially breaching the confidentiality of the process. 

It was for those reasons that I did not immediately record the 2 April meeting or the subsequent phone call on 23 April in which Mr Salmond wanted me to tell the Permanent Secretary that I knew about the investigation and persuade her to agree to mediation. 

It is worth noting that respect for the impartiality of civil servants and the confidentiality of government business are also obligations imposed on me by the Code.

My judgement changed when Alex Salmond made it clear to me that he was seriously considering legal action. 

I felt I had no choice at that stage but to inform the Permanent Secretary, which I did on 6 June 2018.

I also confirmed to her that I had no intention of intervening in the process. And I did not intervene in the process.    

Mr Salmond’s anger at me for this is evident.

But intervening in a process that I was expressly excluded from – and trying on behalf of a close associate to change the course it might take – would have been an abuse of my role.

The committee is also rightly interested in the Judicial Review and the government has now published legal advice that informed the decisions we took.

It is clear from that advice that whilst the government had very strong prospects of defending Mr Salmond’s initial challenge, that changed over a two month period from late October to late December.

The concerns raised by counsel, caused by emerging evidence regarding the role of the Investigating Officer undoubtedly caused me and others to pause, and to check if we should continue to defend the case. However, as late as December 11 the view of the Law Officers following consultation with counsel was as follows:

“very clear that no question or need to drop the case. LA clear that even if prospects are not certain it is important that our case is heard.

“Senior Counsel made clear that his note was not intended to convey that he didn’t think we have a stateable case.

They concluded that “…we have credible arguments to make across the petition.”

It was when that changed, that the decision was taken to concede. 

In any legal challenge a government faces, there is a balance of risk. That risk cannot be eliminated, but the task of ministers is to consider carefully all the advice we receive and consider the broader public interest.

And the test in the Ministerial Code is not the view of external lawyers but of the Law Officers. 

… the hearing continues



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