The time the Scottish Government is taking to hand over information to the Alex Salmond inquiry is “totally unacceptable”, a Holyrood committee has said.
The committee examining the botched investigation into claims of sexual harassment against the former first minister said it was having to extract evidence “through attrition” during witness questioning rather than government co-operation.
The inquiry was set up after the Court of Session ruled in January 2019 that the government’s investigation had been “procedurally unfair” and “tainted with apparent bias”, resulting in a £512,250 payout for Salmond.
In a letter to Deputy First Minister John Swinney, committee convener Linda Fabiani also accused the government of using legal privilege to withhold documents beyond those just containing legal advice.
Fabiani said the committee was “concerned by the extent legal professional privilege is being applied”, citing the evidence of a former government director-general on Tuesday.
Sarah Davidson told MSPs that just days before the government conceded the judicial review, she wrote a report for permanent secretary Leslie Evans with details of the financial cost of the judicial review, the handling of harassment complaints as well as the legal advice.
The Scottish Government has refused to hand over the entire document, a decision Ms Davidson said she was unable to explain.
Fabiani wrote: “The committee finds it difficult to understand why legal professional privilege is being applied to an entire document in this way and it raises serious questions for the committee about the criteria being applied by the Scottish Government when deciding to assert legal professional privilege including litigation privilege over entire documents or parts of documents.
“The committee therefore seeks an explanation of the criteria that is being applied.”
Fabiani also said the government was first asked to retain and process documents relating to the complaints handling procedure on February 26 2019, but more than 20 months on it has failed to identify and hand over the information.
She wrote: “For the Scottish Government to be informing the committee in October 2020 that it needs to begin a process to identify documents that are not covered by the undertaking of the Court of Session and to initiate legal proceedings to release them is totally unacceptable.”
Scottish Labour deputy leader and committee member Jackie Baillie said: “The Scottish Government continues to treat this committee with utter contempt.
“We can no longer wait for the Deputy First Minister to hand over the evidence that should have been handed over months ago.
“By delaying the handing over of evidence and hiding behind legal privilege again and again, the Scottish Government has made its priority clear: covering its own back.
“The secrecy has to end. It is time for the Scottish Government to hand over all the evidence or tell the people of Scotland what it is that they have to hide.”
On Wednesday, the Scottish Parliament supported a motion calling for the government to waive legal privilege and provide details of the advice it received about its unlawful investigation of Salmond.
Following the government’s defeat on the issue, Swinney said ministers would consider the issue.
But during First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Nicola Sturgeon said she would be “blatantly breaching” the ministerial code if she released the advice her government received from lawyers during the legal battle with her predecessor.
Sturgeon said consent to release legal advice will “only be given if there are compelling reasons”.
She added: “Ministers have to consider now the vote last night, the Deputy First Minister made clear ministers will do so.
“I have rightly, I think, recused myself from that decision and as John Swinney said to parliament last night he will advise parliament accordingly in due course of our response.”