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by Andrew Learmonth
10 March 2021
Swinney accused of ‘treating parliament with contempt’ ahead of no confidence vote

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Swinney accused of ‘treating parliament with contempt’ ahead of no confidence vote

JOHN Swinney has been accused of treating parliament with contempt over the publication of legal advice in the government’s court battle with Alex Salmond.

The Deputy First Minister faces a vote of no confidence tonight, though he’s likely to survive after the Greens said they would not support the Conservative motion.

It comes after MSPs on the cross-party committee investigating the Scottish Government’s flawed handling of allegations of misconduct made against Salmond by two civil servants said they were "extremely frustrated" at delays in handing over evidence.

The inquiry said it was "not reassured it has received all relevant information".

Opening the debate, Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader in Holyrood, said: “The fact that the committee has been hampered at every turn from receiving even basic information in order to do its job doesn't just let down these women all over again, it lets down current and future government employees, too.”

But the Deputy First Minister said the vote was “baseless”. 

Last November, MSPs twice voted for the legal advice relating to the court battle to be handed over to the committee.

While Swinney showed some of the advice from external counsel to MSPs on the inquiry in December, it was only last week, when a vote of no confidence was first proposed, that papers and correspondence were published.

Lord Advocate James Wolffe then told the committee he had only been asked to give his permission to share the advice after the no confidence motion was tabled.

The papers from government have come out bit-by-bit. To the anger of committee members, an email from external counsel threatening to quit was only made public after Nicola Sturgeon appeared before the inquiry.

On Tuesday, Swinney said that minutes of meetings between the First Minister, the lawyers and Leslie Evans, the permanent secretary, in November could not be found.

In today's debate, Labour’s deputy leader, Jackie Baillie said that was “inconceivable”.

“The Cabinet Secretary's response to the committee and to this chamber today is that there were no minutes, but there will have been notes. There absolutely will have been notes. Scottish Government lawyers and external counsel are required to take notes. It is a matter of professional duty to do so.

“The notes taken by them should be released to the committee. There can be no debate about this. Absolutely none.

“The government have waived legal privilege over other documents, those notes, ultimately, belong to the Scottish Government, and there is absolutely no reason for them not to release them immediately to the committee. Unless of course, they do have something to hide.”

The MSP, who sits on the committee, said: "The government has treated the committee of this Parliament with contempt. And it's treated the parliament with contempt too."

Davidson said her party knew they were going to lose the vote, but that it still important to register their unhappiness with the SNP politician.

“The votes are there for the Deputy First Minister, but we believe that it is important and right to put on record that this is no way for the Scottish Government to treat this parliament.

“And while Mr Swinney's outriders will do a lap of honour in the press, the real losers are Scottish Government employees who have been lumbered with a protection at work policy that everybody knows is damaged goods, and that staff are too afraid to use.

“With a bit of transparency and candour, the committee could have helped work out what went wrong and why. But John Swinney preferred to keep evidence secret at every turn.”

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Lib Dem member of the committee, warned Swinney that he could soon face another voter of no confidence.

He told MSPs: “I do not harbour personal animosity to John Swinney, but this is the second time he has tested the confidence of this Parliament and while he may escape with his job intact today, I wish to put him on notice that there may indeed be a third.

“A motion in the name of Willie Rennie was passed by this chamber, last month, compelling, John Swinney to release the OECD review into secondary education. To this date, he has not done so.

“Once again the Deputy First Minister stands in contempt of this Parliament and once again he may be subjected to its judgement if he does not produce it in short order.

“So I say to Mr Swinney, act on the instruction of this Parliament on the production of the OECD report, or we will be back here next week or the week after with a similar motion, and you may not be so certain of Green party's report on that.”

The custom in no confidence votes is that a colleague of the subject will lead the defence, but Swinney took the unusual step of speaking for himself.

“The decisions that are under scrutiny in this debate are mine, and it is right that I am accountable to Parliament for them,” he said.

The Deputy First Minister said the decision to publish the legal advice came about as a response to “outlandish allegations of conspiracy and corruption being promoted by people who, frankly, should, and do know better”.

He said he was worried that the accusations being made “could impact negatively on public confidence in the parliament, government, and even our judicial institutions”.

The government “therefore decided last week that the balance of public interest had shifted, and we should publish the advice from counsel.”

Swinney said ministers had now published all of the formal written advice notes received from external counsel, as well as emails and an unredacted version of a summary of the government’s actions.

He added: "We've also published documentation that includes the legal advice of the law officers. On minutes of meetings we simply don't have those. We've asked Senior Counsel whether they have a minute of these meetings, they do not.

"What I can say is that the outcomes of these discussions are reflected in the pleadings made to the court by the government, which we shared with the committee some months ago."

Swinney said nothing had been hidden from the committee: “In fact, let us be frank about what we have released, it paints a clear picture, warts and all. No embarrassment for the government is spared in the publication of these documents.”

He added: “On any fair interpretation of what the government has done, the Tories’ pursuit of this motion today is now entirely baseless. With an election only weeks away the reality, I suspect, is that they were always intent on pushing this motion to a vote, regardless of what action the government had taken.”

Green co-leader Patrick Harvie said the inquiry into how the allegations were handled had “become nothing more than shabby, political theatre”.

He added: “In my view, there are members who should have been focused on the interest of complaints, in the past and in the future, but who have clearly been more obsessed with the idea of winning a political scalp.”

Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - MSPs expected to confirm SNP leader as first minister

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