By Bill Heaney
The sexual harassment case against the former First Minister Alex Salmond would have been stopped in its tracks – and should never again be thrust any civil servant – if the SNP government had taken taken the advice of the police and referred the women who complained to an in-house advocacy service for counselling.
Also, hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money would not have been squandered on paying external lawyers for their advice to abandon a judicial review before taking contrary advice of the government’s own internal law officers to stick with it.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, above right, looked calm and confident during the initial stages of the Salmond inquiry at Holyrood this morning where she insisted she had no reason to want to “get” Alex Salmond. She dismissed claims of a plot against him as “absurd”.
The first minister was speaking at the inquiry into her government’s unlawful handling of harassment complaints against her predecessor, and she apologised to the two women who had made the complaints, saying they were let down by a “very serious error”.
But she rejected out of hand much of Mr Salmond’s version of events.
Mr Salmond has claimed several people within the SNP and Scottish government – including Ms Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive – were involved in a “deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort” to damage his reputation, even to the extent of attempting to have him imprisoned.
Ms Sturgeon said she had “thought often” about the impact of the past three years on Mr Salmond, but said Mr Salmond had shown no sign of thinking of others. He was one of those powerful men who who believed everything was about him.
She said she had watched Mr Salmond give evidence to the inquiry committee last Friday and had found herself “searching for any sign at all that he recognised how difficult this had been for others too”.
Ms Sturgeon added: “First of all, for women who believed his behaviour towards them was inappropriate, but also for those of us who have campaigned alongside him, worked with him, cared for him, and consider him a friend – who now stand unfairly accused of plotting against him.”
Ms Sturgeon acknowledged that Mr Salmond had been cleared of all of the sexual assault allegations against him by a High Court jury.
But she added: “I know just from what he told me that his behaviour was not always appropriate.
“And yet across six hours of testimony, there was not a single word of regret, reflection or even a simple acknowledgement of that.
“I can only hope that in private, the reality might be different.”
Ms Sturgeon said the moment Mr Salmond showed her a letter detailing the complaints against him was “a moment I will never forget”. She was so upset that she was almost physically sick.
She said: “Although he denied the allegations, he gave me an account of one of the incidents, the complaints, of which he said he had apologised at the time.
“What he described constituted in my view deeply inappropriate behaviour on his part.”
She said the female complainers had come forward “of their own free will”, and that while some “evidently did support each other” this was not evidence of a conspiracy.
Ms Sturgeon told the cross-party committee of MSPs that Mr Salmond had been one of the “closest people to me in my entire life”.
She added: “I would never have wanted to ‘get’ Alex Salmond – I would never, ever have wanted any of this to happen. I had no motive, intention or desire to ‘get’ Alex Salmond.”
The inquiry is examining the Scottish government’s botched handling of sexual harassment complaints made against Mr Salmond by two female civil servants.
And it emerged that it really was botched on a grand scale.
Ms Sturgeon is facing calls to quit from Scottish Conservatives after new documents released on Tuesday evening raised further questions about her involvement in the saga.
The government published emails showing it continued a doomed legal fight with Mr Salmond despite its lawyers advising it was likely to lose.
It ended up paying Mr Salmond’s legal fees of more than £600,000, on top of its own costs, after the investigation was found to have been unlawful and “tainted with bias”.
Further evidence from two other witnesses also called into question Ms Sturgeon’s account of meetings she had with Mr Salmond and Geoff Aberdein, his former chief of staff.
Ms Sturgeon told the inquiry the meetings were not recorded because of her desire to “protect the independence and confidentiality” of the complaints process.
And she said she did not agree with Mr Salmond’s assertion that there had been a “shared understanding” of what the meeting in Ms Sturgeon’s home was to be about.
Ms Sturgeon was questioned at length about claims the name of a complainer was passed to Mr Salmond while the meeting between the two first ministers was being set up.
Mr Salmond said the name had been revealed to his former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein, and two other former SNP staffers – Kevin Pringle and Duncan Hamilton QC – have written to the committee to support his account.
However Ms Sturgeon told the inquiry that she had been given assurances that “it did not happen in the way that has been described”.
She said she believed that Mr Salmond was already aware of the identity of the two complainers, and that Mr Hamilton and Mr Pringle were not present at the meeting in question.
She said she was prevented from going into more detail due to legal constraints, but added: “I understand evidence has been given to this committee that denies that allegation, and I believe there has been an offer of confidential evidence as well.”
As Ms Sturgeon was speaking, Mr Salmond’s spokesman released a statement saying he had lodged a formal complaint with Scotland’s top civil servant, Leslie Evans, pictured left, about “the conduct of the official who is alleged to have breached civil service rules by disclosing the name of a complainant.”
Speaking after the First Minister’s appearance at the harassment inquiry, LibDem Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said: “The answers from the First Minister on the handling of the identity of complainers, the offer of assistance to Alex Salmond and the separation of party and government business were concerning.
“The failure of the government to engage in timely and full disclosure of important evidence has frustrated the inquiry. In fact, five minutes after the end of the session today, the government released more information that the committee asked for months ago.
“The committee will need time to consider the large volume of new evidence before reaching its verdict. There are serious matters for the future of the First Minister.
“Reaching the correct conclusion will be the first step on the route to restoring confidence of those who may consider making complaints about harassment in future.”
The inquiry continues.
Alex Salmond with his advisers arriving at court in Edinburgh.