Claim Nicola Sturgeon probe barrister had 'conflict of interest' is False 6

Claim Nicola Sturgeon probe barrister had ‘conflict of interest’ is False

Irish barrister James Hamilton this week issued a report that found First Minister Nicola Sturgeon did not breach the ministerial code during an investigation into sexual offences claims against her predecessor, Alex Salmond.

Sturgeon had referred herself for scrutiny in January 2019. That move came after she faced questions about her contact with Salmond over claims made against him. She was later accused of misleading Parliament in the account she gave of that contact.

After Hamilton issued his report there were numerous claims posted on social media alleging that he was associated with Sturgeon and her party – the SNP – and as such should have recused himself from the investigation.

One such claim, which was shared on Twitter nearly 400 times and liked over 1,800 times, asked why Hamilton was chosen to lead the probe, “when he was associated with Sturgeon and the SNP”. It added he should have “recused himself on the grounds of conflict of interest”.

Ferret Fact Service looked at the claim and found it False.

Evidence

Hamilton has been an independent adviser to the Scottish Government since 2013. The position, which focuses specifically on providing advice in relation to the Ministerial Code, was introduced by Salmond in 2008 in his role as First Minister rather than as SNP party leader.

Prior to the Sturgeon investigation, every referral in relation to a potential breach of the code focused on Salmond’s behaviour. He was cleared on each occasion. 

Since the advisory position was introduced there have been two independent advisers retained by the government at any one time. Former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini QC currently serves alongside Hamilton. Their role is, when asked, to provide the First Minister with advice on whether ministerial behaviour has breached the code and whether any action should be taken.

Hamilton was called to the Irish bar in 1973 and from 1977 to 1981 worked as a state prosecutor in Donegal. From 1981 to 1999 he held a number of roles in the Office of the Attorney General in Ireland before being appointed the country’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). 

There is no evidence that he has any political affiliations. A report published in The Irish Times when Hamilton was appointed DPP said he was “known to be politically astute” and had been a member of Ireland’s Labour Party “as a young barrister” but that he had resigned when he joined the public service.

Living in Ireland would not preclude him from joining the SNP, but he is not a member.

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How has this claim arisen?

Prior to Hamilton’s report on Sturgeon being released on March 22, numerous changes were made to his listing on the website Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia has a team of mostly voluntary site editors, the platform is open to all and anyone can edit its pages.

Having been created in 2011, Hamilton’s page was updated 32 times between then and June 2020. From the evening of March 18 to the evening of March 23 it was updated 95 times. One of these updates inserted the line “he is also a former member of the Scottish National Party”. Other additions included “this has raised concerns about the fairness of an independent report into Nicola Sturgeon’s misconduct” and that Hamilton was reappointed to his role in 2015 “after receiving a considerable “under the table” payment from the Scottish National Party”. 

These statements were removed by a number of Wikipedia’s regular editors because no sources were provided to back them up.

Attention was drawn to the changes by a number of social media users including Guido Fawkes journalist Tom Harwood, who has 78,000 Twitter followers. In a tweet posted on March 22 he suggested the removal of the recently added statements was suspicious, writing that “some users seem intent” on removing lines linking Hamilton to the SNP. He added that that was “interesting given [Hamilton’s] report clears Sturgeon…”. 

Harwood told Ferret Fact Service that his comments “just say that something has been removed from the wiki page, not that it’s true”.

Does party membership affect the position?

Being a member of a political party does not preclude anyone from serving as an independent adviser on the Ministerial Code.

Sir George Reid, who served as both an SNP MP and MSP, and Lord Steel, who is a former leader of both the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats, were independent advisers between 2008 and 2011. During that time they twice cleared Salmond of breaching the code – in relation to comments about the future of the Scottish Interfaith Council, and the number of people who had absconded from open prisons – and rejected a further referral as being without merit.

Lord Fraser, who was an independent adviser between 2011 and his death in 2013, was a Conservative politician. He found Salmond had not been involved in nominating Stagecoach businessman Brian Souter for a knighthood and so could not have breached the code.

Angiolini, who was appointed as an adviser in 2011, has no political affiliations. In 2012 she found that Salmond had not breached the code when he invited personal guests to the First Minister’s official residence, Bute House.

Sir David Bell, a former civil servant in the UK Government’s Department for Education, was an independent adviser between 2012 and 2013, during which time he was vice-chancellor of the University of Reading. It is not known if he has any political affiliations. He found Salmond had not breached the code when commenting on legal advice the Scottish Government received about an independent Scotland being able to join the European Union.

Ferret Fact Service Verdict: False

The role of independent adviser on the Ministerial Code was introduced by then First Minster Alex Salmond in 2008. James Hamilton is not a member of the SNP. However, being a member of a political party does not preclude anyone from holding that role. There is no suggestion that political allegiances have swayed any of the investigations carried out since 2008.

This claim is false

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, and a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Go to ideas.theferret.scot, email us at factcheck@theferret.scot or join our Facebook group.

Photo thanks to Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament.

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