Nicola Sturgeon Ministerial code

FFS explains: Nicola Sturgeon and the ministerial code

The First Minister appeared at the Holyrood inquiry into the handling of allegations against Alex Salmond facing claims over whether she had broken the ministerial code. 

Nicola Sturgeon was answering questions about the handling of the Scottish Government investigation after Alex Salmond was accused of sexual harassment by two women.

He was later charged by police with 14 counts including attempted rape and sexual assault, but was acquitted in a legal trial in March 2020

The Ministerial code allegations also form the basis of a separate independent inquiry into Sturgeon’s conduct, led by Irish QC James Hamilton. 

Ferret Fact Service looked at how the Ministerial code works, and what happens if the First Minister is judged to have breached it. 

What is the ministerial code?

The Scottish Ministerial Code defines the standards that Scottish Government ministers are meant to adhere to when in office. 

It outlines a code of conduct for the First Minister, Cabinet Secretaries, Law Officers and junior Scottish Ministers, in line with seven “principles of public life” – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

The latest update, in 2018, added new sections on harassment, bullying and inappropriate behaviour by ministers.

In 2008, an external panel was created to review concerns regarding ministerial conduct, which Sturgeon has referred herself to. 

How is Nicola Sturgeon alleged to have broken it?

Alex Salmond has made a number of allegations that the First Minister failed to live up to her obligations under the code. 

He claims her misconduct relates to the investigation into allegations against him and its fallout. 

The current Scottish Parliament inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the situation is also looking at her behaviour in relation to the code. 

There have been questions raised around the timings of meetings between the First Minister and her predecessor, and when Sturgeon knew of the two allegations against Salmond which were investigated by the Scottish Government. 

After initially saying she had first heard the allegations from Salmond at a meeting at her home in Glasgow on 2 April 2018, she later accepted that she had met with Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, four days earlier. 

However, she disputes Salmond’s claim that she was told of the allegations against him in that meeting. 

The ministerial code says: “It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to the Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead the Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the First Minister”. 

The First Minister is also alleged to have breached the code by not formally recording the substance of the meetings with Salmond. 

The code says that “basic facts of formal meetings” with external individuals should be recorded, as should the reasons for the meeting. Sturgeon contends the meeting was not in her position of First Minister, but as leader of the SNP, which means it did not need to be recorded. 

Salmond has also argued that the nature of the botched probe into him could also be grounds for a breach of the code. 

The legal costs of the judicial review which Alex Salmond successfully brought against the Scottish Government over the process cost taxpayers more than £500,000, and legal advice given to the Scottish Government has been released showing warnings that it would likely lose the case. 

This could potentially be seen as a breach of section 2.30 of the code, which states: “Ministers and officials should therefore ensure that their decisions are informed by appropriate analysis of the legal considerations and that the legal implications of any course of action are considered at the earliest opportunity.”

What are the consequences of breaking the code?

The Ministerial code is clear about the expected result of lying to parliament, stating that  “Ministers who knowingly mislead the Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation”. 

It will be up to James Hamilton’s panel to judge whether or not the First Minister has broken the Ministerial code.

However, the code states that ultimate authority on how to deal with breaches of the code lies with the First Minister herself. So she will in essence have to make a decision on her own future, should she be found to have broken the code. 

She is has already faced calls to resign from some quarters. However recent polling suggests she remains popular, with support both in the SNP and in the general population

Photo thanks to Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament.

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