The Scottish parliament has taken the unprecedented legal step of ordering the country’s top prosecutors to release hitherto undisclosed evidence as part of an inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against the former First Minister, Alex Salmond.
The move comes amid months of protracted wrangling in Holyrood in two inquiries regarding the Salmond affair.
One is led by a cross-party committee of MSPs investigating how allegations against Mr Salmond were handled by the Scottish government.
The other is being conducted by James Hamilton QC, and is investigating whether the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon breached the ministerial code by hosting Mr Salmond at her home during the course of the investigation, and failing to notify the Permanent Secretary, Leslie Evans, of this.
The order to release the evidence, issued as part of the Holyrood committee’s inquiry, was served under Section 23 of the Scotland Act 1998.
This is the first time the Scottish Parliament has exercised this power in its history.
The Crown Office has seven days to release the evidence, meaning it must be disclosed by 29 January at 17.00.
Though there are ways for the Lord Advocate to circumvent the order, for example if he decides that disclosing the evidence would not be in the public interest.
Linda Fabiani, the convenor of the committee, said:
“Throughout this inquiry, the committee has been determined to get as much information as possible to inform its task.
“This is a step that hasn’t been taken lightly, and is a first for this parliament, but which the committee felt was needed as it continues its vital work.”
Evidence desired by the committee concerns WhatsApp messages between key SNP figures, including the party’s Chief Operating Officer Sue Ruddick, in the period of August 2018 until January 2019.
It was in August 2018 that news was first leaked that the Scottish government was investigating two allegations of sexual harassment against Mr Salmond.
Following this, Mr Salmond resigned from the SNP and sued the Scottish government for its handling of the investigation.
In January 2019, the court of session in Edinburgh ruled that the Scottish government’s investigation had broken the law, as one of the chief investigators had been in prior contact with one of the complainants.
The Scottish government paid Mr Salmond over £500,000 to cover his legal fees.
Later, in March 2020, he was acquitted of all criminal charges.
Earlier this month, Mr Salmond submitted arguments to the James Hamilton QC inquiry, contending that Ms Sturgeon “repeatedly misled” the Scottish parliament and holds positions that are “manifestly untrue” and “untenable”.
In response, Ms Sturgeon accused Mr Salmond of spinning “false conspiracy theories”.
The two figures, once the ruling duopoly of the independence movement, are set to appear under oath before the committee inquiry in the coming weeks.
After postponing his appearance on several occasions already, Mr Salmond has been offered a final date of February 9 to appear before the committee inquiry.