Potential witnesses in Holyrood’s inquiry into the handling of complaints against Alex Salmond – including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – could be questioned under oath.
The special committee set up to investigate how the Scottish Government dealt with harassment claims made against the former first minister discussed taking the unusual step on Monday.
It also drew up an initial list of witnesses from whom written evidence, and potentially oral evidence, will be sought.
Among them are the First Minister, her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, Salmond himself and permanent secretary Leslie Evans, Scotland’s top civil servant.
It was the group of MSPs’ first meeting since Salmond was cleared of all charges of sexual offences by a jury in the High Court in March.
At the virtual meeting, Conservative MSP Donald Cameron called for MSPs during the inquiry to “take sworn evidence, evidence on oath”.
He said it is “absolutely imperative that the evidence we get is as accurate as it can be”.
Convener Linda Fabiani said the committee would “consider and report on the actions of the First Minister, Scottish Government officials and special advisers in dealing with complaints about Alex Salmond”.
Ms Evans will be the first witness when the committee starts hearing evidence after Holyrood’s summer recess.
List of prospective witnesses
- Current and former permanent secretaries
- Staff trade unions
- The First Minister
- The deputy first minister
- Alex Salmond
- Former chief of staff to Alex Salmond, Geoff Aberdein
- The First Minister’s chief of staff
- A number of senior civil servants
- Lord Advocate James Wolffe
- Chief Executive of the SNP, Peter Murrell
The Scottish Government was forced to pay Salmond more than £500,000 in damages after the Court of Session ruled its handling of complaints against the ex-FM had been “unlawful” and “tainted with apparent bias”.
The inquiry will examine how top officials handled allegations made about the former SNP leader’s conduct in 2018, which dated back to 2013.
While not directly related, the complaints ultimately triggered Police Scotland’s separate investigation after Ms Evans sent the results of her internal review of the case onto police.
The inquiry will also look at Salmond’s dealings with his successor Nicola Sturgeon.
Speaking during the committee meeting, Cameron said under section 26 of the Scotland Act, and rule 12 of Holyrood’s standing orders, committees can question witnesses under oath.
Arguing for this to happen, the Tory MSP said: “It seems absolutely imperative that the evidence we get is as accurate as it can be, and we need the opportunity to test both its credibility and its veracity, not least because we are likely to get conflicting versions of events.
“And secondly, we are dealing with very serious matters involving the highest echelons of the Scottish civil service and the conduct of very senior ministers past and present.
“Taking sworn evidence underscores the gravity of subject matter of this inquiry and will ensure we get the best possible evidence.”
The call was backed by Liberal Democrat committee member Alex Cole-Hamilton, who said: “There will be conflicting stories and it is vital we have confidence in what we as a committee hear.”
With the committee having been established in the wake of the Court of Session’s 2019 ruling, MSPs raised concerns about what Cole-Hamilton dubbed “very regrettable delays” in getting written evidence from the Scottish Government.
“I don’t think it has necessarily taken our requests as seriously as it might,” he claimed.
MSPs on the committee said it would be important to be able to meet in person once they start taking evidence from witnesses.
Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie suggested meeting in Holyrood’s main chamber instead in committee rooms as social distancing is likely to still be in place in August.
Baillie added: “I don’t think the work of this committee can be conducted on a virtual basis.”
Scottish Greens co-leader in parliament Alison Johnson said she wanted to see the group meet once a week “at the very least”.
SNP MSP Angela Constance, another member of the committee, said she wanted to see their work “proceed with pace”.
Sturgeon previously pledged to give evidence to the committee if she is called as a witness.
Speaking in January 2019, she said: “As First Minister I don’t consider it optional to me whether or not I appear before parliamentary committees, that is a part of my job and a part of my responsibility.”
She also already referred herself to independent advisers who will consider if she breached the ministerial code during meetings and phone calls with her predecessor in 2018.