Alex Salmond’s appearance in front of a Holyrood inquiry has been thrown into doubt after large sections of his written testimony were censored following pressure from Scottish prosecutors.
Lawyers for the former First Minister said the move to delete large sections of his written evidence, finally published on Monday evening, had no legal basis. They warned it could lead to him cancelling his appearance before MSPs investigating the Scottish Government’s unlawful sexual harassment probe against him.
The newly-redacted document detailed the ways in which he believes Nicola Sturgeon had broken the ministerial code, and remained online for around 16 hours.
The Crown Office expressed “grave concerns” over the publication of the evidence, which had already been widely reported in the media and had been published almost in full by The Spectator.
Of course it's that part. The redaction now restricts the committee's ability to discuss it and then question Salmond/Sturgeon on it. https://t.co/rj5oLATnBJ
— Ruth Davidson (@RuthDavidsonMSP) February 23, 2021
It is understood the concerns related to a potential breach of contempt of court, with an order in place that prevents publication of information likely to lead to the identification of complainers in the criminal case.
Holyrood caved in on Tuesday morning, pulling the previous version and publishing a new one, with around 500 fewer words, on Tuesday afternoon.
Mr Salmond’s camp has been left furious, and believes the move adds weight to his belief that a tyrannical Crown Office is inappropriately meddling in the Holyrood inquiry in an attempt to protect Ms Sturgeon and her allies.
Meanwhile, MSPs claimed the Scottish Parliament is now facing a "credibility crisis" after the unexplained u-turn.
David McKie, Mr Salmond’s lawyer, said his client’s submission had been carefully vetted to ensure it would not breach any court orders.
In a letter to the committee, he demanded to know the legal basis for the redactions and said these “could have a material bearing on whether he is able to attend tomorrow”.
Today I raised the removal of evidence from the committee on harassment complaints list of evidence received — this is a crisis for the Scot Parliament — the PO’s response was completely unacceptable, the Lord Advocate and the Parliament’s corporate body must be held to account
— Neil Findlay MSP (@NeilFindlay_MSP) February 23, 2021
He added: “Our client is alarmed at the interference of [the] Crown Office in a Parliamentary Inquiry… Our client’s final submission makes clear his concerns on the role of the Crown office in this matter already. Today’s intervention only serves to reinforce those concerns. There is no legal basis for the redactions that we are aware of."
Mr Salmond believes he has material, which was disclosed to his defence during the criminal trial, which shows there was a conspiracy against him launched by senior figures in the SNP and Scottish Government.
However, he has been warned by the Crown Office that he risks being prosecuted if he discloses that information publicly. His lawyers raised fears that Mr Salmond could now be "placed in legal jeopardy" if he speaks about his submission.
The parts of Mr Salmond’s submission which has now been censored include details of the run-up to a meeting in early April 2018 at Ms Sturgeon’s home, which she told Holyrood was when she first became aware he was being investigated by the civil service for sexual harassment allegations.
Mr Salmond believes there is evidence that Ms Sturgeon knew about the investigation earlier.
The important point to grasp here is that if the Crown Office succeeds in un-publishing Salmond's submission then the Inquiry cannot consider it when it comes to finalising its conclusions. Devious. https://t.co/h7N245w70r
— Andrew Neil (@afneil) February 23, 2021
Mr McKie said Mr Salmond was entitled to have his submission published and that removing parts of it may compromise his oral evidence.
Holyrood committees are not allowed to ask witnesses in public sessions about evidence that is not published.
Mr McKie added: "We require to see urgently the legal basis for the proposed redactions in order that we can properly advise our client and make further representations. These could have a material bearing on whether he is able to attend tomorrow.”
Nicola Sturgeon has dismissed claims of a conspiracy against her predecessor as "nonsense" and has insisted she is looking forward to rebutting "ridiculous conspiracy theories" when she gives evidence to the inquiry next week.
Raising a point or order in the Holyrood chamber, Neil Findlay, the Labour MSP, called for the Lord Advocate or members of the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body (SPCB), which made the decision to redact the documents, to appear in the Holyrood chamber urgently to explain their actions.
Holyrood has now issued revised Salmond evidence after Crown Office intervention — and deleted a claim that Nicola Sturgeon misled parliament which has nothing to do with Mr Salmond's criminal trial. Eh? https://t.co/PqoIT6K7i7
— Tom Gordon (@HTScotPol) February 23, 2021
The Holyrood committee is investigating the civil service probe into Mr Salmond, which was found to be unlawful after he challenged it in court. He was later cleared of all charges in his trial following a separate criminal investigation.
Mr Findlay said the botched civil service case had cost taxpayers at least £1 million and expressed concern over the decision to alter Mr Salmond’s evidence.
He said: “This is a crisis for the credibility of this parliament. We need someone to come and explain to us what has happened. We simply cannot let this pass without members interrogating that decision.”
A Scottish Parliament spokesman said: “The SPCB agreed to republish the submission in redacted form in line with representations from the Crown Office. We cannot comment any further on the redactions as the Crown Office has advised that its correspondence on this matter must be kept confidential.”