Alex Salmond has been given a deadline by which to appear before MSPs probing the Scottish Government’s botched handling of harassment complaints against him
Linda Fabiani, the convener of the specially established committee, wrote to the former first minister after he refused to come to Holyrood and answer questions from them on February 2 – citing health and safety concerns in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
It comes as MSPs on the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints took the unprecedented step of issuing a notice to the Crown Office under part of the Scotland Act, demanding a number of documents.
The notice, formally issued by Holyrood chief executive David McGill, states that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) “may hold documents relevant and necessary for the committee to fulfil its remit”.
The committee is seeking the release of documents detailing text or WhatsApp communications between SNP chief operating officer Susan Ruddick and Scottish Government ministers, civil servants or special advisers from between August 2018 and January 2019, that may be relevant to the inquiry.
It also wants to see any documents linked to the leaking of complaints to the Daily Record newspaper in August 2018.
It is the first time ever a Holyrood committee has issued such a notice, and Ms Fabiani said: “Throughout this inquiry, the committee has been determined to get as much information as possible to inform its task.”
She said MSPs on the committee had agreed to use “powers under Section 23 of the Scotland Act to require the Crown Office to produce a number of documents”.
The committee convener added: “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.”
The Crown Office has been given till 5pm on January 29 to respond to the notice – which was was issued as Ms Fabiani wrote to the former first minister in a bid to agree a date for him to give evidence.
A letter from Mr Salmond’s lawyers cited “health and safety grounds” in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as a reason for his reluctance to appear at Holyrood on February 2.
Ms Fabiani has now told the ex-SNP leader that if he is not available then – and cannot attend on alternative dates that week – then the “committee regrets that it will not be able to take oral evidence from you”.
In these circumstances, she said Mr Salmond would be “free to submit further written evidence”.
She described Mr Salmond as being an “important contributor” to their inquiry and that the committee “would very much like to find a date within its increasingly short timescales when you are available”.
Mr Salmond has been given the option of giving evidence to the committee either in person in the Parliament, or by appearing remotely, on either February 2 or February 3.
Alternatively a session where both Mr Salmond and the committee members all take part virtually could be arranged for either February 1 or February 4 – although Ms Fabiani stressed this was “not the committee’s preferred format”.
The committee was set up after the Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against the former first minister to be “unlawful” resulting in a £512,250 payout to Mr Salmond.
And it has again urged the Scottish Government to wave legal privilege and release the advice it received from lawyers regarding the case.
Ms Fabiani, in a letter to Deputy First Minister John Swinney, said this was “central” to the committee’s scrutiny of the judicial review process.
She told him: “It is also imperative that this advice is published and that the Scottish Government waives legal professional privilege to enable the Committee to scrutinise the First Minister on the judicial review during her evidence session and to refer to the detail of the advice in the Committee’s final report.”
A Crown Office spokesman said: “COPFS has received the correspondence from the committee and will respond in early course.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We will consider the committee’s letter – but the Scottish Government has already taken unprecedented steps to provide the Committee with access to relevant information to allow it to fulfil its remit.
“The Government has, exceptionally, provided the Committee with access to a summary of the legal advice on the judicial review on a confidential basis.
“This is in addition to the written and oral evidence already provided to the Committee about the judicial review process, including the Open Record of the pleadings and over two-and-a-half hours of oral evidence by the Lord Advocate.
“The Government’s approach has enabled the Committee to have access to relevant material to fulfil its remit, without creating a general waiver of legal privilege that could limit the ability of future Scottish Governments to request and receive candid legal advice in future litigation.”