The Scottish parliament has ordered the country’s prosecution service to release key evidence in the Alex Salmond affair, in a dramatic escalation of a battle over the non-disclosure of legal papers.
In an unprecedented move, Holyrood issued an enforcement notice on the Crown Office instructing it to release private messages from senior Scottish National party officials and documents about the leak of allegations that Salmond had sexually harassed two civil servants – allegations he denies.
The notice, under section 23 of the Scotland Act 1998, follows months of stalemate involving the Scottish government, the Crown Office and Salmond himself and a special Holyrood committee set up to investigate the government’s botched handling of an internal inquiry into the allegations against him.
The letter from Holyrood’s chief executive and clerk, David McGill, has given the Crown Office, headed by the lord advocate, James Wolffe, seven days to comply.
Linda Fabiani, a Scottish National party MSP who chairs the committee, said: “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.”
Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s acting leader, said: “At every turn, the SNP government has sought to hide vital material from the committee in a vain effort to leave it a toothless entity; a talking-shop without power. Enough is enough – the secrecy must end.”
The documents cover WhatsApp messages sent or received by Sue Ruddick, the SNP’s chief operating officer, and ministers, officials and special advisers in the Scottish government between August 2018, when news of the government investigation into Salmond was leaked, and January 2019.
That month Salmond won a judicial review ordering the government to quash the findings of its internal inquiry. However, he was then arrested and charged with 14 offences, chiefly involving alleged sexual assaults and attempted rapes. In March 2020, Salmond was acquitted of all charges, following a two-week jury trial.
Leaks of messages sent by Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive and Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, implied he wanted to put the police under pressure to pursue Salmond – an allegation Murrell has denied. Salmond alleges the messages involving Ruddick suggest collusion. Sturgeon has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing by the party or her officials.
Salmond too has been accused by committee members of stalling. After refusing two successive requests to give evidence, citing health and legal concerns, the committee told him on Friday he must appear by 5 February.
The committee has also again written to the Scottish government, asking it to finally release its legal advice on its prospects for winning the judicial review, after ministers and the lord advocate refused to comply with two Holyrood votes requesting the disclosure.
Documents released to the committee disclose the government’s external counsel threatened to quit after senior civil servants suggested they would not admit defeat in the case. The government was later ordered to repay £516,000 worth of legal fees to Salmond, in addition to its own legal costs of some £60,000.
Murdo Fraser, a Conservative MSP on the committee, said: “The committee has consistently been blocked from performing its remit by SNP ministers. The level of obstruction has been extraordinary.”
The Crown Office said it would respond to the request “in early course” but that it had already told the committee there were potential legal constraints on releasing the material. Crown counsel “must consider whether producing [the] documents sought would be contrary to the public interest”, a spokesperson said.