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Sturgeon chief of staff 'interfered' in Salmond harassment investigation

Sturgeon chief of staff 'interfered' in Salmond harassment investigation

NICOLA Sturgeon’s chief of staff has been accused of interfering in the Scottish Government’s investigation of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond - months before the First Minister said she first knew of the inquiry.

The allegation was made by Tory MP David Davis in the House of Commons.

The claim has been denied by a spokesman for the First Minister.

The former Brexit minister used parliamentary privilege to make public evidence he said was handed to him by “an anonymous whistleblower”.

He said the information handed to him included a download of text messages from the telephone of Sue Ruddick, the chief operating officer of the SNP.

Davis told MPs the papers shared with him showed concerns being raised about Liz Lloyd by Judith Mackinnon, the civil servant appointed to investigate the complaints made about Salmond by two women.

He said: “I have it on good authority that there exists from 6 February 2018, an exchange of messages between civil servants Judith Mackinnon and [Scottish government's director of people] Barbara Allison suggesting the First Minister’s chief of staff is interfering in the complaints process against Alex Salmond.

“The investigating officer complained, Liz interference, v bad', I assume that means very bad.

“If true, this suggests that the chief of staff had knowledge of the Salmond case in February,” he said.

Davis added: “The First Minister also tied herself to that April date in both parliamentary and legal statements. She was, of course, aware earlier than that. The question is just how aware, and how much earlier.”

In January 2019, the Scottish Government conceded its investigation of Salmond had been unlawful and tainted by bias. It was forced to pay the ex-SNP leader £512,000 in costs.

After the judgement, Sturgeon told parliament that she became aware of the government’s investigation of the allegations against Salmond when he told her at a meeting in her Glasgow home on April 2, 2018.

However, it later emerged that she met Geoff Aberdein, Salmond’s former chief of staff, in her office on March 29, 2018.

In her evidence to the cross-party Holyrood inquiry, Sturgeon said she had forgotten that meeting, that it was opportunistic and casual and that it “never held any significance” in her head.

Salmond disputes this, saying the meeting was formal, and explicitly set up to talk about the investigation.

Following his criminal trial, where he was cleared of 13 charges of sexual assault, Salmond said he had further material which he wanted to use in the court but was not allowed to for legal reasons.

Some of this, which was discussed at a preliminary hearing, included messages from Sue Ruddick.

Salmond had previously urged the Holryood inquiry to seek text and WhatsApp messages between Ruddick and civil servants, ministers and special advisers, or other material relevant to its work.

However, the texts they received were ultimately not published, as MSPs felt it wouldn’t be in the public interest to publish the private communications, which they said “were safe spaces for confidential support,” rather evidence of a conspiracy.

But Davis told MPs his whistleblower believed the evidence “points to collusion, perjury, up to criminal conspiracy”.

He said: “No single sequence of text is going to provide conclusive proof of what the whistleblower described as a criminal conspiracy, but it does show a very strong prima facie case which demands further serious investigation, by which I mean, at the very least, a thorough review of all emails and other electronic records of the relevant personnel at all the relevant times.”

One of the messages, Davis said showed SNP compliance officer Ian McCann expressing “great disappointment to Ruddick, that someone who had promised to deliver five complainants to him by the end of that week had come up empty or 'overreached' he as he put it.”

The MP added: “One of the complainants said to Ruddick she was feeling pressurised by the whole thing rather than supported.

“The day following the Scottish Government's collapse of the judicial review in January 2019, Ruddick expressed to McCann the hope that one of the complaints will be sick enough to get back in the 'game again'.

“Later that month she confirmed to [SNP chief executive Peter] Murrell that the complainant was now quote 'up for the fight and keen to see him go to jail'.

“Ruddick herself expressed nervousness about what happens ‘when my name comes out as fishing for others to come forward’.

Davis added: “Note again, this was after the criminal investigation into Salmond had commenced. This is improper to say the least. Contact with, and influence of, potential witnesses is totally inappropriate once a criminal investigation is underway.

"That was known inside the SNP itself. Text messages revealed that at an SNP National Executive Committee meeting early in January 2019 The Honourable Member for Edinburgh South West [Joanna Cherry] raised concerns amongst staff at Westminster, that SNP headquarters are engaged in 'suborning of witnesses', whilst on the 28th of August 2018, a senior member of SNP staff in this building, described in an email the SNP headquarters move against Salmond as a witch hunt.”

A spokesperson for the First Minister said: “As with Mr Salmond’s previous claims and cherry picking of messages, the reality is very different to the picture being presented.

“Every message involving SNP staff has been seen by the committee previously. Their views have been widely reported as dismissive of them.”

Elsewhere, in his speech, Davis called for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. He said Holyrood had faced “great difficulties exposing what went on”.

The cross-party inquiry had, he claimed, “come up against endless impediments in its efforts to fulfil its remit.”

The Tory MP said: “These difficulties can be traced back to the Scotland Act 1998, in which the British government of the day, and this House, decided to devolve power to Scottish Parliament, but failed to do it properly.

“These failures are broadly on three fronts: first this House failed to guarantee separation of powers to Scotland. We have known for centuries that separation of powers is fundamental to a functioning democracy. Yet in Scotland the Lord Advocate both leads the prosecution service, and serves in the Scottish cabinet.

“This leaves him conflicted and compromised with the department's independence undermined.

“Second, the Scottish civil service was left as a part of the wider UK civil service, and therefore does not have its own mechanisms of control and accountability in place, but it is only loosely controlled by Whitehall.

“The result has been tolerance of failings, which ordinarily would have led to resignations.

“Third, and most important Scottish parliamentarians are not given the same powers and privileges that members of this house enjoy. This means evidence relevant to the Holyrood inquiry, can be freely discussed here, today using parliamentary privilege. But if an MSP in Holyrood were to do the same, they'd like to find themselves facing down prosecution.

“Indeed, the Crown Office has been making such threats to Mr Salmond's lawyers, to various journalists and even the Holyrood inquiry itself. They made clear that they would deem disclosure of evidence to a committee of elected representatives to be a criminal offence.

“We have, in effect, given the Holyrood inquiry, the right to summon evidence, but not to use it. It is because of these failings I brought this debate today.

“We need to reinforce the ability of the Scottish Parliament to hold its own government to account. I am here to strengthen the Scottish Parliament not to bury it.”

Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - Scotland has voted for a second independence referendum, says Nicola Sturgeon

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