Claims by his Unionist opponents that First Minister Alex Salmond lied over statements he made relating to EU legal advice have been undermined following official confirmation that law officers did indeed review published documents.
In a surprise move yesterday, the Scottish government issued an official statement confirming that Scottish law officers had read and approved official documents claiming an independent Scotland would remain in the EU.
The confirmation followed claims by the Labour party that Mr Salmond was a “bare faced liar” after Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed that the historic Edinburgh Agreement had given a green light that allowed the Scottish government to now seek specific legal advice on the EU status of an independent Scotland.
Labour pointed to a seven month old BBC interview between Mr Salmond and Andrew Neil in which the First Minister had confirmed advice had already been sought. However the SNP leader pointed out that the advice being referred to related to the general debate and to documents already published by the Scottish government which referred to EU membership.
Speaking to the Holyrood chamber this week, Mr Salmond explained the need to for such documents to be checked to ensure they were legally sound, before publication. The official confirmation now looks to have confirmed Mr Salmond’s explanation.
The official confirmation that law officers were consulted is a blow to the anti-independence camp and many within the Scottish media who have pursued the First Minister over the issue. It will also cause questions to be asked over the decision by the BBC to give the accusations by the Labour party such a relentless, and uncritical high profile.
In an attempt at diffusing the row, and following a letter from Labour MEP Catherine Stihler, the First Minister has himself instigated an investigation into whether he has broken the Ministerial Code, the sixth time he has felt the need to do so following accusations from opposition MSPs. Mr Salmond has been cleared by the independent panel on each of the five prior occasions.
As this investigation will include the provision of advice by Scotland’s law officers and the fact that both members of the panel are former Lords Advocate, Alex Salmond has invited Sir David Bell to lead the investigation.
Making the announcement in Parliament on Thursday, the First Minister confirmed that Sir David’s findings will be made public.
Mr Salmond said:
“Yesterday Catherine Stihler MEP wrote to me asking me to investigate formally whether the Ministerial Code had been broken in relation to existence and content of legal advice on an independent Scotland’s continued membership of the European Union.
“I can confirm that I have today agreed to that request by referring the matter to the independent panel of advisers on the Ministerial Code.
“As this matter touches on an area of the Code which relates to the law officers’ prerogative in terms of the existence or content of legal advice, and our two members of the panel are both distinguished former Lords Advocate, I have – on the advice of the Permanent Secretary – invited Sir David Bell to join the independent panel of advisers.
“Sir David is currently Vice-Chancellor of Reading University and former Permanent Secretary of the Department for Education for England.
“He will lead the investigation into this matter.
“The findings of the independent adviser will be made public. I will accept them and I hope that all members of this chamber will do likewise.”
However, despite official confirmation of Mr Salmond’s stance and an announcement by the First Minister of an independent inquiry, the Labour party have continued their attacks.
Labour MSP Patricia Ferguson said: “We have seen a number of contradictory statements from Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon this week, and they have failed to give a credible explanation for the chain of events surrounding this crisis.
“We would like to afford the Lord Advocate an opportunity to make a statement or give evidence as a way of restoring confidence in this process. He should have nothing to hide and it is time he stepped up.
“Scotland’s membership of the European Union and our currency are fundamental questions about our future, but the people of Scotland no longer trust this SNP Government to be clear about the consequences of breaking up the United Kingdom.”
SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn criticised Labour’s attempt to draw law officers into the row and said: “Labour should remember that the law officers of Scotland are entirely independent of party politics, and are not there to be used for party political point-scoring – or to compensate for the inability of Labour and the rest of the opposition to make their points effectively in Parliament.”
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