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by Staff reporter
03 March 2021
Live blog: Nicola Sturgeon at Holyrood's harassment committee

Live blog: Nicola Sturgeon at Holyrood's harassment committee

Welcome to Holyrood's live blog on Nicola Sturgeon's appearance before the Committee on the Scottish Government of Handling of Harassment Complaints.

17.22: Thank you for joining us for Holyrood's live blog. 

17.11: That's it, folks!

17.10: Responding to attacks on the independence of the civil service and the justice system, Sturgeon says: "There have been mistakes made in this and I think there is a lot of learning to be done, partly because of the narrative around this, but I would put it to people that when it's seen in the terms of what actually happened, this is an example of the institutions of the country, independent insitutions of the country, doing their job, And actually, out of that comes the message that not matter how powerful you are or were, your status or connections, if you are accused of serious offences, then they will be investigated and you will have a chance to defend yourself in court, and that is how these things should work."

17.00: Nicola Sturgeon: "Maybe this is one of the differences between me and Alex Salmond: I've never tried to pretend that I'm infallible, I've never tried to pretend I don't get things wrong."

16.57: Sturgeon says the 14 July meeting was the one she has wondered about, but she was concerned about what might be about to erupt and she still felt a loyalty to Salmond.

16.55: Baillie asks why Sturgeon decided to keep meeting with Salmond, given what she has said about his behaviour. Sturgeon answers: "I think I made the appropriate judgements overall. Other people in the same situation as me might have done different things. That's the complexity of these situations we face."

16.47: Baillie suggests that if Sturgeon thought Salmond was going to resign from the party to clear his name, she must have known what he needed to clear his name from. Sturgeon says she had a suspicion he had been accused of something but didn't know the detail until 2 April.

16.45: Convener Linda Fabiani intervenes and says this is "starting to become inappropriate" because the discussion is referring to the court case.

16.42: "I am not trying to be difficult, but I have not seen Geoff Aberdein's account," says Sturgeon. Jackie Baillie says her understanding is his account was given in court. "I wasn't in court," Sturgeon says. "It was widely reported," Baillie replies.

16.39: Sturgeon says she was given a "broad indication" that the meeting on 29 March with Geoff Aberdein was about concerns about Alex Salmond

16.17: Fraser says Sturgeon had previously told the Scottish people they could trust Alex Salmond, that he was a man of "integrity and honour", and asks when when she decided he was "no longer the Charles Stewart Parnell of Scotland". "I've learned things about Alex Salmond the past couple of years that made me rethink things I thought about him," says Sturgeon. "No doubt he would say the same thing about me." Sturgeon says when she was watching him "lashing out" on Friday, she wondered whether he ever reflects on the fact that "many of us, including me, feel very let down by him". Fraser asks if she should apologise for asking the people of Scotland to trust him. "I am not going to apologise for the behaviour of somebody else," she says.

16.11: Fraser asks if Sturgeon is spreading conspiracy theories by contradicting what Hamilton and Pringle said. Sturgeon denies this. She says there can be different accounts of events. She says she has not heard the account from Geoff Aberdein himself. "I am not here accusing anybody of anything," she says.

16.05: Fraser asks about Peter Murrell's evidence that he thought the meeting on 2 April was a government one. Sturgeon says that was Murrell's assumption. She also says she agreed to the meeting on party political grounds, but her decision not to report the meeting at the time was not based on that.

16.02: Fraser asks why Duncan Hamilton and Kevin Pringle would make up claims about happened on 29 March. Sturgeon says they weren't in the room then and she can't vouch for what they've been told. Sturgeon asks why she would have gone to lengths to make up what happened.

16.01: In response to Murdo Fraser, Sturgeon denies that the meeting on 29 March was requested by her office.

15.45: Alex Cole-Hamilton raises the delay in Sturgeon telling the Permanent Secretary that she was aware of the investigation. She told Leslie Evans about the April meeting on 6 June. Cole-Hamilton asks if it would've been transparent to tell the Permanent Secretary from the outset that she had been approached by Salmond. Sturgeon says she didn't notify Evans at the time because she wasn't involved in any decision around the complaints process. She said it also would have been a risk to confidentiality.

15.41: Sturgeon tells the committee: "I hope there's not that many people, certainly in politics, that find themselves in the position of having to deal with serious complaints like this against somebody that was so close to you. But did I deal with all of this perfectly? Did I deal with it in a clinical way that with hindsight everybody can get absolutely? Maybe not but I dealt with it the best I could and people will draw their own conclusions and make their own judgements about that."

15.25: On the topic of meetings with Alex Salmond, Sturgeon says she met him twice after 2 April 2018, once on 7 June and around about 13 July - which she thinks was the final time she met him "full stop". She says "probably at that stage I was still a bit concerned about him".

15.09:  Baillie goes on to say: "We were told by the former first minister that he had a precognition statement which suggested that a special adviser was encouraging civil servants to come forward as they were out to get him and that would assist the cisting process." Sturgeon replies: "You were told a lot of things by the former first minister. Just as you'll be applying your critical faculties to what I'm telling you, I'm sure you're doing the same to his as well. The government did not try to sist."

15.07: Baillie moves back on to the topic of sisting, which was previously raised by Allan. Sturgeon replies: "To the best of my knowledge, there was no attempt to sist the judicial review."

14.58: Baillie references the opinion from 31 October, written by Roddy Dunlop QC, which she says suggests the prospects of winning were incredibly slim. Sturgeon says "lawyers will not pursue an unstateable case" and so if Dunlop or Christine O'Neill thought the case was unstateable at that point they would not have agreed to continue.

14.45: Jackie Baillie expresses her frustration that information from the Scottish Government given to the committee has been partial and late, while the legal advice took two votes in parliament and a motion of no confidence in John Swinney before it was provided yesterday evening. She says there is information missing. Sturgeon takes issue with some of the "characterisations of delay and prevarification" on providing information. However she says she will reflect on the matter.

14.35: Maureen Watt asks Sturgeon if the protecting of the complainants and their complaints played a roled in it "taking quite a while" to decide whether to concede the judicial review. The First Minister replies: "As long as this case was stateable and we thought we had an arguable, credible case - even although our prospects had deteriorated - then the wider public interest came into play. That was the desire if possible to get a judicial determination on all of the grounds of challenge and also, in addition to that, if we thought we had a chance of successfully defending this and prevailing both on the legality of the procedure and the process then that would have been in the interest of the complainants because it wouldn't have meant that the whole the process was set aside in the way it ultimately was."

14.25: The First Minister says: "I can't find the words to express this strongly enough. I never ever ever wanted to face a situation where Alex Salmond, a man I had revered since I was 20 years old, probably younger than that, was facing serious allegations of sexual misconduct. I didn't want him exposed, I didn't want any of this to happen."

14.20: Sturgeon says if she had intervened and used her role and influence to get Salmond an outcome he had wanted it would've been "an egregious breach" of her power. "I think it would've been wrong and deeply inappropriate," she adds.

14.16: The First Minister says the assumption that arbitration would have avoided all the problems in this process is "a massive leap of logic" and "nobody knows that". She adds the government - in a process she was not part of - was undoubtedly considering Salmond's arguments in favour of arbitration and decided arbitration "was not an appropriate thing to do". 

14.12: Sturgeon says it would have been "highly inappropriate" to intervene on Salmond's behalf in the complaints process "to try to bring any particular outcome about".

14.07: Allan says on matters of timing there has been an accusation put to the committee that the government sisted the case to allow the criminal trial to take over and the judicial review to be stopped before it reached a decision, which he says are "serious allegations" and offers Sturgeon the chance to respond. "The Scottish Government didn't sist the case and never asked to sist the case," Sturgeon says. She adds "there's a factual flaw in that hypothesis".

14.02: Alasdair Allan asks the First Minister what role does external counsel play in determining the government's legal position and did this case depart from that. She says external counsel "play a big role" and their advice "carries a lot of weight", which is weighed with other factors. 

The committee is now back under way.

13:36: This has already been another marathon session for the committee and we're not finished yet...

13:30: Away from the committee, Alex Salmond has lodged a formal complaint with Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans 

The committee has stopped for another break.

13:20: Asked about claims the case was only conceded after counsel threatened to resign, Sturgeon says this is “not my understanding of the position”. “The handling of the judicial review was legally sound,” she adds.

13:15: The procedure was being challenged not just as it referred to the Salmond complaints, but overall says Sturgeon. “That is not insignificant, I would argue,” she adds. When it became clear information had “not intentionally” not been disclosed about prior contact with complainants, the position changed she adds.

13:10: Fraser highlights external legal advice received on 6 December 2018 that the ‘least worst’ option would be to concede the petition. Why did the government not do so at that point, he asks. The First Minister says the view of law officers was there was “no question or need to drop the case”. She says she was acting in accordance with the views of the law officers – and therefore did not break the ministerial code.

13:02: Moving onto the judicial review part of the inquiry, Murdo Fraser asks if it is “fair to say” to government’s position was in trouble from October when the Investigating Officer’s role became clear to counsel. Sturgeon says discussions with the law officers after that concluded the case was defensible on that point and therefore the government should continue. She explains a “wider interest” for the government was to test the procedure overall was lawful.

12:46: Andy Wightman asks about claims by Salmond that Sturgeon offered to intervene. The First Minister suggests perhaps she tried to let a friend down “too gently” but insists she did not make that offer. She explains that during that meeting, where she had been “told something pretty shocking by Alex Salmond”, she had a “very strong instinctive view that I couldn’t and shouldn’t intervene.” She suggests this is the root of Salmond’s anger towards her.

12:33: The First Minister says she would “push back” on the idea the government should not have tried to investigate. She accepts there may be a question about when the referral was made to the police and whether that should have happened given complainers were against it. But she adds there is a duty on public authorities to report suspected criminality.

12:29: Margaret Mitchell asks whether it was appropriate for the Scottish Government to investigate the complaints, given civil servants were advised by police they were not trained to deal with it. “The Scottish Government officials should never have been anywhere near this investigation,” Mitchell says.

12:12: The First Minister says some of the WhatsApp and text messages may have shown people being “upset” and “angry”, but she insists the idea these suggest a plot of conspiracy is “actually quite offensive”.

12:07: Sturgeon says that Salmond needs to evidence his suggestions that there was a concerted, malicious campaign against him. “I have seen nothing which comes within a million miles of demonstrating that,” she says. Messages have been “taken out of context, misrepresented, twisted”, she says, adding they showed people “supporting each other, talking to each other” and a “bit of gossip”.

11:59: Alasdair Allan asks whether the Scottish Government should have considered arbitration. The First Minister says it was considered, but the complainers didn’t want that. She adds it would not necessarily have been quicker or cheaper either. She also says had she sought to intervene personally, that would have been a “heinous breach of my position”.

This just in from the Daily Record's political editor:

11:52am: Cole-Hamilton says the report of investigation was passed to Crown Agent against wishes of complainers. “Was that the right this to do?” he asks. Sturgeon replies: “I think on balance, yes.”

11:36am: Alex Cole-Hamilton resumes questioning after a comfort break. He asks the First Minister about when she first become aware people were coming forward with concerns about Salmond’s behaviour. Sturgeon says she “had an awareness” and a “lingering suspicion” that there may be issues, but it was not until reading the letter from the permanent secretary that those concerns became “detailed and actual knowledge”.

This from justice secretary Humza Yousaf

The committee is taking a short break 

11.12am: Sturgeon on leaking of the story to the media: "There was no part of me that wanted proactively to see that get into the public domain. I had nothing to gain from it and only pain and grief"

11.10am: Baillie asks when Sturgeon was aware of the leak to the Daily Record. Sturgeon says the afternoon of the 23 August, the day before the story ran. Asked where the leaks came from, she says she doesn't know. They didn't come from her or anybody acting on her authority. She also says that she didn't have a copy of the decision report that was used in the story.

11.00am: Sturgeon says to the best of her recollection she was not aware of the initial meeting between her official and Salmond's former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein and at time it would not have been "newsworthy" as they were all friends. Asked who authorised the passing on of the complainant's name, Sturgeon says she is not accepting that that happened, so is "clearly not accepting that that was authorised". She says she disputes the premise of the question

10.55am: Sturgeon says Salmond knew who one of the complainants was because he had already apologised to that person and he also knew the identity of the other complainant at the meeting on 2 April and he had gone through the Scottish Government Flickr account to find out who was with him on particular days. She says she doesn't recall any suggestion from Alex Salmond at that meeting that he was told the identity of a complainant in the way that has been suggested.

10.50am: Jackie Baillie asks who authorised the meeting with Geoff Aberdein in which the name of one complainant was allegedly passed on. Sturgeon says she wants to answer as fully as she can but is under legal constraints. She says the meeting did not happen as has been described. She also says the official concerned has offered to give evidence to the committee in private. It is not possible to go much further than that, Sturgeon says.

10.46am: Asked about the procedural mistakes that were made in the division of roles between communicating with complainants and investigating complaints, Sturgeon accepts mistakes were made and says Laura Dunlop QC is reviewing these matters for the government and that will be an opportunity, in addition to what the committee reports, to consider why these things happened and make sure they won't happen again.

10.40am: Alasdair Allan asks why the first minister did not have a role in the new procedure as they did in the previous Fairness at Work policy. Sturgeon points out it was the deputy first minister under Fairness at Work, but says the world had changed and it was felt it was best for a current minister to be as far removed a possible so "there was no suggestion - ironic given where we are - there was no suggestion a first minister of the same party as the person being complained about could be trying to influence how the investigation was taking place"

10.30am: Nicola Sturgeon on suggestion the complaints process was intended to 'get' Salmond: "It wasn't. Absolutely, emphatically not... Alex Salmond has been... one of the closest people to me in my entire life. I would never have wanted to 'get' Alex Salmond. And I would never, ever have wanted any of this to happen. If I could have, short of brushing complaints under the carpet, which would have been wrong to be, if I could turn the clock back and find legitimate ways that none of this would ever have happened, then I would."

10.26am: Sturgeon says there would have been a public interest in the judicial review going forward becuase it

10.25am: Wightman raises an issue that procedure for former ministers involved passing senstive information over to the party leader. Sturgeon says the idea was that the party should have awareness of that in case they had a position of authority in the party, but all of these things are "legitimate things to probe and to question"

10.20am: Sturgeon says she does not recall being informed of any problem with the legality of making the procedure retrospective

10.15am: Wightman asks whether Sturgeon thinks "as a matter of principle" there should be a procedure for investigating complaints against former ministers, Sturgeon says, yes. "Unequivocally, absolutely". She says people in positions of political power are powerful people and therefore presumably it is more difficult for people to bring forward compaints, so if the complaints process stops once the person no longer holds the position, you are "closing off" that ability to hold people to account.

10.12am: You can read the our news report on Nicola Sturgeon's opening statement to the committee here.

10.06am: Andy Wightman quotes one of the women who made a complaint against Salmond as saying she did not complain previously because it would have been swept under the carpet and damaged her career. He asks if Sturgeon would now take the fact that civil servants have concerns more seriously in the aftermath of this. Sturgeon says yes, but "I hope it is the case that I have taken it seriously previously".

10.02am: Alex Salmond has a tendency to see most things as being about him, but this was not a "bespoke Alex Salmond policy", says Sturgeon. To see it in that way "really ignores what was happening globally at that time". Sturgeon says if she had been influenced by allegations against Salmond made on Sky News, her instinct would have been to influence the policy to protect him

10.00am: Watt asks whether Sturgeon was aware of a complaint against a current or former minister at the time they commissioned the new procedure. Sturgeon says no

9.56am: There isn't an express mediation in the procedure for current ministers, Sturgeon says. She says there is question about whether it is appropriate where there is a power imbalance, but she suggests it might be more appropriate with a current minister than a former one because it relates to people who still have to work together

9.53am: Maureen Watt asks why a new procedure was created rather than updating the old one

9.43am: Sturgeon says the complaints procedure itself was not declared to be unlawful, it was the application of it

9.37am: Mitchell refers to Sturgeon's submission that they wanted to have "robust procedures in place" for complaints to be properly and fairly considered and ask why that didn't happen. Sturgeon says the government made a mistake and she deeply regrets that

9.35am: Sturgeon says the government has made available "substantial evidence"

9.32am: Openness, transparency and accountability is eesential for any government, says Margaret Mitchell, complaining that Deputy First Minister John Swinney will not release details of the costs of the case and that they only got the legal advice when he was threatened with a vote of no confidence. Committee has faced "delay, obstruction and obfuscation", she says. Is that acceptable? she asks


This from SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford: 


9.24am: Sturgeon says the genesis of the new harassment policy was the #MeToo movement

9.20am: Claim that anyone acted with malice or as part of a plot is "not based in any fact"

9.19am: On the legal advice, the decision to concede was taken when the legal advice changed. Previous advice was that it was important the case was heard and the advice was not intended to convey that they "didn't have a stateable case". There were "credible arguments" to make, including about the investigating officer

9.17am: Her judgment on informing the Permanent Secretary changed when Salmond mad eit clear he was considering legal action

9.16am: Had she known on 29 March what she knew on 2 April, Sturgeon said he actions may have been the same, given her concerns about Salmond's state of mind. She didn't immediately report the meeting afterwards to respect the confidentiality of it

9.13am: Sturgeon says she was concerned about Alex Salmond's state of mind and whether he might be considering leaving the party and that's why the meeting was a party one. The meeting on 2 April was when any suspicions she may have had became awareness there was a problem.

9.10am: At that meeting Salmond asked her to read a letter from the Permanent Secretary. Reading the letter is "a moment in my life that I will never forget", says Sturgeon. Salmond's own description of one of the events consituted "deeply inappropriate behaviour on his part" in her view

9.09am: Sturgeon says Alex Salmond's statement that they shared a common understanding of what the meeting on 2 April 2018 was about represents a change in his statement because he had previously said he did not know what her understanding at that stage was

9.07am: Nicola Sturgeon says she will explain why she stands by her statement to parliament

9.06am: Nicola Sturgeon says sorry to the two women who made complaints in the original inquiry

9.05am: The spotlight on workplace harassment in 2017 was "long overdue", says Nicola Sturgeon. Compaints should not be swept under the  carpet. Procedure was developed by civil servants but signed off by her.

9.04am: Opening statement from Nicola Sturgeon coming up now

9.01am: Committee starting now

8.36am: Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross last night called for Sturgeon's resignation 

8.34am: Sturgeon's spokesman has said she will "address all of the issues raised - and much more besides - at the committee" following the publication of the legal advice

8.32am: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is due to appear before MSPs on the committee this morning at 9am. Her appearance follows the publication of the Scottish Government's legal advice last night.


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