A former justice secretary is calling for an independent inquiry into the Crown Office amid allegations it delayed signing off the search warrant for Nicola Sturgeon’s home.
The former first minister’s house, which she shares with her husband and former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, was searched by police as part of an investigation into the party’s finances the week after Humza Yousaf became its leader.
The warrant for Sturgeon’s home was requested during the SNP leadership race but wasn’t approved until after Yousaf won.
Kenny MacAskill, who served as justice secretary between 2007 and 2014, issued a statement on Tuesday about matters “of the utmost gravity and seriousness with huge implications for the functioning of our legal system and democracy”.
It comes after a Freedom of Information request revealed that the Crown Office took two weeks to approve a request for the warrant to search Sturgeon’s home last month.
The Crown Office was made aware of the warrant request on March 20 – during the SNP leadership contest – but it wasn’t approved and sent to a sheriff until April 3.
MacAskill said the delay was to ensure the search wouldn’t take place during the SNP’s contest to find a leader to succeed Sturgeon as first minister.
He said: “As justice secretary I was involved in changes to expedite the warrant process. Delays then were due to bureaucracy and IT systems.
“I never envisaged that police investigations might be delayed by what appears to be political considerations.
“That is why I am today calling for a judge led inquiry into the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in order to restore trust and confidence in this vital institution and to reassure the public that the decisions taken by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service have not been influenced by political considerations.
“Furthermore, we must have absolute clarity that there has not been and will not be any outside and undue interference in the democratic process.
“Ultimately these matters can best be addressed through the separation of powers between the Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal Service and the Scottish Government currently vested in the Lord Advocate.
“This is something which I have consistently called for, and indeed I led a debate on this matter, in the House of Commons in July 2021.
“However the public cannot wait for that to happen which is why we need an inquiry now.”
The SNP has been riven with internal turmoil in recent months, with a police probe into its finances resulting in the arrest of Murrell and then treasurer Colin Beattie – both of whom were released without charge, pending further investigation.
A blue tent was set up in the front garden of the Glasgow house belonging to Sturgeon and Murrell, with police taping the area off, on April 5.
It has now emerged that Police Scotland made a request to the Crown Office on March 20 for warrants to search Sturgeon’s house and the SNP’s headquarters in Edinburgh.
The granting of the warrants was approved by a sheriff on April 3.
Yousaf was named the winner of the SNP leadership contest on March 27, defeating rival candidates Kate Forbes and Ash Regan.
Russell Findlay, the Scottish Conservative shadow minister for community safety, said: “It’s interesting to discover that these key moments in the long-running police investigation took place around the same time that the SNP was imploding.
“Given the obvious sensitivities about alleged fraud relating to the party of government and the husband of the former first minister, it is vital that any issues about timings and procedures are made clear to the public.”
Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie said: “This is a very interesting revelation that will lead to raised eyebrows across Scotland.
“Whilst I accept that the Lord Advocate may not have had a direct influence on the timing, this story underlines why we need to have a serious discussion in Scotland about separating the role of the Lord Advocate to ensure that there is no perception of conflict of interest can ever occur.”
The Crown Office says the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General have no involvement in the SNP fraud case.
A spokesperson said: “In all matters, Scotland’s prosecutors act independently of political pressure or interference.
“It is standard that any case regarding politicians is dealt with by prosecutors without the involvement of the Lord Advocate or Solicitor General.
“COPFS understand the interest in this case but to protect the fair administration of justice we urge restraint in public comment.”
A Police Scotland spokesperson said: “As the investigation is ongoing we are unable to comment further.”
What are police investigating?
Police Scotland have been investigating the SNP since 2021 after receiving seven complaints related to donations to the party.
Donors claimed hundreds of thousands of pounds given during the 2017 referendum appeal – and a subsequent 2019 fundraising effort – were spent by the party on other things.
While the SNP had suggested that more than £600,000 raised through the special appeals was “ringfenced” for a referendum campaign, filings to the Electoral Commission, the independent watchdog, showed that at the end of 2019 the party had less than £100,000 in cash and cash equivalents.
Police Scotland and the Crown Office are investigating how £600,000 of funding raised by the SNP for independence campaigning has been spent.
Nicola Sturgeon leaked video – March 2021
A leaked video obtained by the Sunday Mail showed Sturgeon playing down concerns about the party’s finances in 2021, while warning of the impact on donors of going public with concerns.
It was reportedly from a meeting of the ruling body in March 2021, days before a complaint was made to police about the use of £600,000 of donations earmarked for an independence referendum campaign.
She warned those in the meeting of the national executive committee (NEC) of the impact going public with their concerns could have on donors.
Sturgeon said: “I’ve been on this body continuously for 20 years or so. I’ve been on this body when the party has frankly been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
“The party has never been in a stronger financial position than it is right now and that’s a reflection of our strength and our membership.”