FFS explains: Alex Salmond's committee appearance 3

FFS explains: Alex Salmond’s committee appearance

The fallout from Alex Salmond’s trial over allegations of sexual assault continues more than a year on from its end.

The former First Minister was acquitted of 14 charges at the High Court in Edinburgh on 23 March 2020. 

Now he is giving evidence to a Scottish Parliament inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of allegations against him. 

How did we get here?

On 23 August 2018 The Daily Record reported that Alex Salmond had been reported to police by Scottish Government officials after allegations of sexual assault. The news sent shockwaves across Scottish politics. For his part, Salmond denied the allegations and revealed he had begun legal proceedings against the Scottish Government over the way complaints against him were handled. 

The complaints were brought to light after new policies were instituted by the Scottish Government to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. These were put in place after the #MeToo movement shone a spotlight on sexual assaults by powerful men.  

Salmond was arrested and appeared in court on 24 January 2019, charged with 14 offences including attempted rape and sexual assault. He entered no plea and was released on bail. 

The offences were alleged to have happened between June 2008 and November 2014, when Salmond was First Minister. 

In August of that year, while criminal proceedings progressed, Salmond won a separate judicial review into the way the original complaints against him were handled by the Scottish Government, which admitted its probe into the allegations was “unlawful”. He was paid legal costs of more than £500,000.

Salmond’s trial started on 9 March 2020 at the High Court in Edinburgh. He was acquitted two weeks later after a jury found him not guilty of 12 sexual assault charges, with another charge found not proven. A further sexual assault charge was dropped by prosecutors.

Following the trial, two separate inquiries began. One is the Scottish Parliament committee of MSPs, and another is led by James Hamilton QC, looking specifically at whether Sturgeon broke the ministerial code, which sets out rules of conduct for members of the Scottish Government . This includes the First Minister, Cabinet Secretaries, Law Officers and junior ministers. 

Who is involved in the Scottish Parliament inquiry?

All political parties at Holyrood are represented on the committee. Its current members are Linda Fabiani, Margaret Mitchell, Alasdair Allan, Jackie Baillie, Alex Cole-Hamilton, Murdo Fraser, Alison Johnstone, Stuart McMillan and Maureen Watt. A number of other MSPs have attended the committee during its existence as substitutes. 

What is the inquiry looking into?

The Scottish Parliament’s inquiry is looking at Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against the former First Minister, and how the procedure put in place to deal with such allegations failed so badly.

It is also assessing the way Nicola Sturgeon acted in relation to the code of conduct for Scottish ministers.

Ministers, Scotttish Government officials and high-ranking SNP office-holders have been called to give evidence, some more than once after the committee was unsatisfied with their answers. 

Committee convener Linda Fabiani previously criticised “delay, prevarication and obfuscation” by those involved in the row. 

The inquiry is not formally assessing allegations of conspiracy against Alex Salmond, but has focused on the timeline of events running up to Salmond’s arrest. 

Particular attention has been paid to several meetings between Sturgeon and Salmond, which were not formally recorded. The First Minister’s husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell also gave evidence to the inquiry, and was accused of misleading the committee about his part in the situation. 

He denied lying to the committee, but question arose over how much he knew about the Salmond and Sturgeon meetings, as well as messages sent by him in January 2019 which some have interpreted as urging police pressure on Salmond over the sex assault allegations. 

Salmond has named Murrell alongside a number of Scottish Government officials as directly involved in the alleged attempt to ruin his reputation.

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Why has Alex Salmond’s appearance been controversial?

The appearance of Salmond at the inquiry has been mired in confusion, with the former First Minister declining to appear on 24 February after his evidence to the committee was redacted. 

The decision on whether to publish his submission was initially referred to the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body, which decided that the evidence should be made public. But the Crown Office – Scotland’s public prosecution service – expressed concern that the published evidence could amount to contempt of court. It was later republished with redactions.

Groups supporting survivors of sexual abuse raised serious concerns that Salmond’s evidence could risk identifying a complainer in the case against Salmond. Rape Crisis Scotland’s Sandy Brindlay said the “lack of priority given to protecting complainers”  was a “disgrace”.

Salmond had said that he would not appear at the inquiry until the submission was published. He then agreed to appear on 26 February. 

The submission alleges widespread conspiracy against him, claiming there has been a “malicious and concerted attempt to damage my reputation and remove me from public life”. 

He also claims that the First Minister has repeatedly breached the ministerial code, including by making false and misleading statements about the nature of meetings between the two. 

Nicola Sturgeon has said there is not a “shred of evidence” to support this, and has urged Salmond to prove his claims. She previously referred herself to an independent investigation over alleged breaches of the ministerial code. 

When is the First Minister giving evidence? 

Sturgeon is due to give her evidence on 3 March, after a number of delays. 

What happens if Nicola Sturgeon is found to have broken the ministerial code? 

While the Scottish Parliament inquiry is looking into the First Minister’s conduct relating to the code, the other inquiry led by James Hamilton QC will ultimately be more important in defining whether Sturgeon broke the code. His report will look specifically at the issue.

Interestingly, the First Minister is the ultimate arbiter of what happens after someone breaks the code, so if she herself is found to have breached the guidelines, it is unclear what the result will be. 

Political pressure would certainly increase and her position as First Minister could be under threat, although opinion polls show she remains popular, and she still appears to have the backing of her party.

Photo thanks to the Scottish Government, CC BY 2.0.

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