By Bill Heaney
Scotland’s most senior civil servant “misled” parliament by failing to disclose a meeting with Nicola Sturgeon’s closest aide about the court case that ruled a government investigation into Alex Salmond was unlawful.
A freedom of information (FoI) response shows that Leslie Evans, the permanent secretary, attended talks with Ms Sturgeon, legal counsel and Liz Lloyd, the first minister’s chief of staff.
Ms Evans told a Holyrood inquiry into the botched handling of complaints against Mr Salmond that she was not aware of any role played by government special advisers in the legal process.
“I wouldn’t see any natural role,” she said. “I am not saying that there weren’t conversations with special advisers, I couldn’t possibly say that on oath, but I’m really not aware of any.”
Ms Evans was forced to correct her evidence after wrongly downplaying the role of Ms Lloyd.
However in a follow-up letter, Ms Evans admitted Ms Sturgeon’s most senior special adviser, chief of staff Liz Lloyd, did take part in meetings about the case.
Labour’s Jackie Baillie, pictured left, MSP for Dumbarton, Vale of Leven and the Lochside, claimed this was part of a pattern of “evasion and secrecy from witnesses”.
The cross-party inquiry is looking at how the Government botched an in-house probe into sexual misconduct claims made against Mr Salmond in 2018.
Mr Salmond had the exercise set aside in a judicial review, forcing ministers to admit it had been “tainted by apparent bias” because the lead investigating official had been in prior contact with his accusers.
The collapse of the Government’s case in January 2019 left taxpayers with a £500,000 bill for Mr Salmond’s costs, and the Holyrood inquiry is investigating what happened.
In her correction, Ms Evans said special advisers “were involved in aspects of the Government’s work in relation to the judicial review along with other civil servants”.
She also referred to a Freedom of Information release last year which listed 17 meetings between 23 August 2018 and 7 January 2019 at which lawyers involved in the judicial review met with Ms Sturgeon or senior staff.
This showed Ms Lloyd was present at three meetings in October and November 2018, including one attended by Ms Sturgeon on 13 November.
She said: “As I explained yesterday, both myself and Scottish Ministers were co-respondents in the judicial review. The Chief of Staff’s involvement in meetings enabled her to advise the First Minister in this context.”
Ms Evans was asked by SNP MSP Maureen Watt: “What role, if any, did special advisers have in relation to the judicial review? Were the skills of special advisers sought?”
Mr Evans replied: “They had none, that I am aware of. I would not see a natural role for special advisers.
“I am not saying that there were not conversations with special advisers – I could not possibly say that on oath.
“However, I am not aware that that happened. It is not an obvious locus for a special adviser.”
Jackie Baillie, who sits on the inquiry, said: “This letter from the Permanent Secretary, in which she admits that she misled the committee yesterday, is truly remarkable.
“Despite stating that she did not see ‘any natural role’ to be played by advisers in the legal process, it is now clear that the Chief of Staff was in attendance with the First Minister and the Permanent Secretary.
“Time and time again this committee has been faced with evasion and secrecy from witnesses. This must end.
“All who are brought before the committee must be straightforward and honest. We simply cannot have selective memory loss and evasion inhibiting our vital work any longer.”