Nicola Sturgeon was under growing pressure last night to order an inquiry into her own conduct after fresh revelations about her meetings with Alex Salmond during an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against him.
Opposition parties said yesterday the First Minister appeared to have breached the Scottish Government’s ministerial code of conduct on a number of occasions and a major data protection body confirmed it is investigating a report made by Alex Salmond.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said it was looking into concerns raised by the former first minister on 29 October about the Scottish Government in relation to details of sexual harassment allegations against him appearing in the media.
Mr Salmond wants to know how the claims, which he strenuously denies, got into the public domain. The Scottish Government has said it had found no evidence of a data breach.
News of the watchdog’s involvement comes after Mr Salmond won a legal challenge at the Court of Session in Edinburgh this week against the Scottish Government which admitted acting unlawfully while investigating sexual harassment claims against him.
During the opening First Minister’s Questions of the year at Holyrood, it emerged that Ms Sturgeon’s chief of staff Liz Lloyd arranged the first of five contacts with Mr Salmond about the Scottish Government inquiry while it was under way. The official, who is a Scottish Government employee, also sat in attendance, despite Ms Sturgeon’s claims that it was not a government meeting.
The First Minister came under intense pressure from political opponents when it became clear that she waited two months before telling the Scottish Government’s top civil servant Leslie Evans of her meeting with Mr Salmond about the case.
The fall-out left Ms Sturgeon in the firing line as she rejected accusations of rule-breaking, but she did say she will consider demands that she refer herself to the panel of advisers on the ministerial code. Opposition MSPs from Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats also held talks last night about holding a Holyrood inquiry into the issue.
Ms Sturgeon had three meetings and two phone calls with the former first minister where the investigation was discussed between April and July last year. Claims that these were party meetings and not government-related were ridiculed by opponents yesterday.
The extent of the contact has prompted claims ministerial rules were breached because no minutes were taken.
Tory interim leader Jackson Carlaw said the revelations “drives a coach and horses” through Ms Sturgeon’s defence that she met Mr Salmond in purely a party capacity. “If that was the case, what on earth was her number one adviser as First Minister doing there? The First Minister has shown an astounding lapse in judgment on more than one occasion,” he said.
“She should have severed all contact following the first meeting, but instead spoke with her predecessor on four further occasions about this matter.
“In effect, Alex Salmond has had a series of private audiences with the woman at the head of the very organisation that’s supposed to be investigating him over sexual harassment complaints.”
Labour leader Richard Leonard wrote to Ms Sturgeon urging her to refer herself to external panel which investigates claims of code of conduct breaches by senior ministers because of the two-month silence about the meetings with Mr Salmond.
Mr Leonard’s letter states: “Even if you continue to refuse to accept that you have breached the letter of the ministerial code, it is self-evident that you have breached its spirit. I believe you must now refer yourself to the panel of independent advisers to the code, who I am copying into this letter.”
Complaints have been made against Mr Salmond by two women dating back to his time as First Minister. Despite the collapse of the government’s own inquiry, the complaints are being investigated in a separate Police Scotland investigation. Relations between Salmond and his successor have since sunk to a new low as the fallout of the case yesterday saw him accuse some of seeking to “remove me as a political threat”.
A source close to Mr Salmond said: “Our advice to the government is that when they are in a hole they should try and stop digging.”
Ms Sturgeon denied conspiring against Mr Salmond and found herself on the back foot over the extent of her contact with him while the sexual harassment case was under way.
The first meeting took place at her home in Glasgow on April 2 when she was first informed of the harassment case which had been launched in January.
At this stage she did not report the contact to the Permanent Secretary, Ms Evans, telling MSPs yesterday that she was anxious to avoid the appearance of seeking to influence the investigation. The First Minister said: “I’m satisfied that I conducted myself appropriately in line with all the rules.”
Ms Sturgeon added that Ms Lloyd was present in her role as a politically-appointed special adviser who has the ability to advise on party issues.
The First Minister said she is “perfectly happy” for Holyrood to hold an inquiry into the affair, she was also clear that “it’s not for me as First Minister to tell parliament what it should and shouldn’t inquire into”.