Alex Salmond inquiry: did Nicola Sturgeon break the ministerial code - and could she be forced to resign?

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The Holyrood inquiry is now using legal powers to seek documents from the Crown Office, for the first time in the parliament’s history

It was the partnership which fronted the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, but Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have now launched attacks against one another.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is facing allegations that she broke the ministerial code by not revealing details of a meeting she had with Mr Salmond regarding charges of sexual assault against him.

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Sturgeon denies the accusations, but she has put herself forward for an independent investigation.

The former and current First Ministers are expected to give evidence in early FebruaryThe former and current First Ministers are expected to give evidence in early February
The former and current First Ministers are expected to give evidence in early February

So what could happen if the allegations that Nicola Sturgeon did break the ministerial code prove to be true? Here is what we know.

What are the allegations against Nicola Sturgeon?

The row centres around the Scottish government’s botched investigation of sexual harassment complaints against Alex Salmond, which resulted in £500,000 in legal costs being paid to the former first minister.

Alex Salmond has accused Nicola Sturgeon of lying about evidence she gave to the inquiry into the handling of the complaints. Salmond referred to Sturgeon’s evidence as “simply untrue”.

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A cross-party parliamentary inquiry, headed by nine MSPs, has found that the internal investigation of sexual misconduct complaints against Mr Salmond was unlawful.

Questions have now been raised over the role of senior civil servants and the conduct of Nicola Sturgeon.

The inquiry is currently tasked with investigating whether Sturgeon acted in line with the Ministerial Code when she remained in contact with Mr Salmond while he was being investigated.

Sturgeon claims she was not aware of the complaints when she continued communication with Salmond.

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The inquiry into Ms Sturgeon’s actions centres around whether or not she tried to influence the conduct of the investigation and if she failed to ensure civil servants gave truthful information to parliament.

The First Minister insists she "acted appropriately and in good faith throughout, and in compliance with the ministerial code".

She also told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on 24 January that it is right that she be scrutinised by the committee.

How has Sturgeon responded to the allegations?

Ms Sturgeon insists she heard about the complaints against Salmond in a meeting on 2 April 2018, at her Glasgow home.

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She said the meeting where he informed her was “seared in my memory" and had "somehow overwritten in my mind a much more fleeting, opportunistic meeting that took place a few days earlier".

However, it has since emerged that Sturgeon met with Salmond’s Chief of Staff Geoff Aberdein some days previous, on 30 March - allegedly in her office at the Scottish Parliament.

It is in the 30 March meeting, Mr Salmond claims his staff member “personally discussed the existence of the complaints and summarised the substance of the complaints.”

Nicola Sturgeon now claims she had forgotten about this meeting as it was not when she heard of the complaints.

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She says she first heard of the allegations against Salmond when he visited her home on 2 April.

Sturgeon also suggested in a Sky News interview, that her predecessor may be angry with her for refusing to "collude" with him to make the internal complaints about his sexual conduct "go away".

Why does it matter where Sturgeon was when she heard about the complaints?

If Sturgeon had met with Salmond at her Glasgow home, there would have been no need to disclose details of what was said to civil servants, as per section 4.22 of the Ministerial Code.

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However, if she had found out about the complaints against Salmond in a meeting in parliament, she would have been obligated to disclose this as part of her duty to inform parliament of the nature of ministerial meetings

She has insisted that the meeting in her home was in her role as the SNP party leader.

Therefore, she claims she did not interfere in the parliamentary complaints of staff who accused Salmond of sexual misconduct, as she was not involved as the First Minister.

However, Salmond has suggested that the disputed earlier meeting was not “opportunistic”, instead it was a “pre-arranged” engagement.

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Salmond contends that Sturgeon lied to the inquiry and parliament, an offence which should result in the first minister’s resignation.

What is the difference between a ministerial and party meeting?

Sturgeon has told parliament that she did not declare the alleged ‘chance’ meeting with Aberdein, as it was not a pre-arranged meeting and there was no mention of Salmond’s legal case.

Should the inquiry determine that she is lying, this would suggest she broke Section 1.3 of the ministerial code.

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The code states that "ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the first minister.”

In response to these accusations, the First Minister said: "I do not consider that I misled parliament, but that is for others to judge."

Section 4.22 of the ministerial code also states that "the basic facts" of government meetings with "external individuals" should be recorded, with a list of those present and an explanation as to why the meeting has taken place.

Therefore, Sturgeon would be guilty of not providing details of her meeting with Geoff Aberdein and of misleading parliament.

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Salmond has stated: "The pre-arranged meeting in the Scottish Parliament of 29 March 2018 was "forgotten" about because acknowledging it would have rendered ridiculous the claim made by the first minister in parliament that it had been believed that the meeting on 2 April was on SNP Party business and thus held at her private residence."

Will Nicola Sturgeon need to resign if she is found to have lied to parliament?

Both Sturgeon and Salmond are expected to give evidence to the Holyrood inquiry into the handling of complaints in coming weeks.

Mr Salmond has been given a ‘take it or leave’ offer to appear on 2 February and give his evidence.

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However, his lawyers have cast serious doubt over the ability for him to appear on this date.

Regardless of Salmond’s appearance, Sturgeon is expected to appear on 9 February and her husband, the Chief Executive of the SNP Peter Murrell, will also give evidence.

The Holyrood inquiry committee has been given some access to reports summarising the legal advice given to Salmond and the Scottish Government during the complaints investigation, but some information was not provided as evidence.

The inquiry is using legal powers to seek documents from the Crown Office, a first since the Scottish Parliament was created.

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Convenor of the committee, Linda Fabiani MSP has described the use of these powers as necessary for proceedings to continue.

The government argued that revealing the full details of its legal advice would undermine the ability for lawyers to provide free and fair legal advice with a degree of privacy, and prevent lawyers from providing honest opinions in future.

This is despite the first minister insisting to parliament that she would cooperate fully with investigations.

Until the inquiry has heard and had the chance to question both the former and current First Minister, it will remain uncertain whether Ms Sturgeon will need to resign.