By a Newsnet reporter
First Minister Alex Salmond has been cleared of breaching the Ministerial Code after a row over whether he had lied about seeking EU advice on the membership of an independent Scotland in the EU.
In a judgement released today, principal of Reading University, Sir David Bell cleared Mr Salmond after the First Minister referred himself for investigation following a complaint by Labour MEP Catherine Stihler.
Ms Stihler had accused Mr Salmond of misleading the public over the existence of legal advice. The complaint followed the submission of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the Labour MEP asking the Scottish Government to reveal whether it held specific legal advice on the issue of EU membership.
Confirmation that no advice had been sought was eventually revealed by deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in a statement to the Holyrood Chamber in October last year.
However the revelation led to claims that Mr Salmond had lied after a BBC interview from March showed the First Minister confirming he had sought advice “in terms of the debate”.
Speaking on the day Nicola Sturgeon made the statement, Scottish Labour MSP Paul Martin said: “It appears the First Minister is a liar and used taxpayers’ money to try to cover up his lies. When asked about whether he had sought legal advice on Scotland joining the EU he said he had.
“He even went to court to prevent that advice from being published and he told the Scottish Parliament that he couldn’t reveal it because the rules wouldn’t let him.
“Now Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that Alex Salmond never had any advice to keep secret in the first place. That means the Deputy First Minister has revealed the First Minister to be a liar.
“This government cannot be straight with the Scottish people. Alex Salmond has started the debate on Scotland’s future within the UK with barefaced lies that even embarrass his deputy.”
Better Together campaign chief Alistair Darling added: “This strikes at the heart of Alex Salmond’s credibility. In March he said he had legal advice on this critically important issue, today his deputy has had to admit that no such advice has been received.
“It looks like Alex Salmond has embarked on a costly legal battle to conceal the fact that there never was any legal advice.”
In a blow to Unionists, the claims against the First Minister have been thrown out by Sir David, who in his judgement said: “I have not found you, or the Scottish Government, to have breached the Ministerial Code in respect of the complaints made by Ms Stihler.”
The First minister had asked the respected academic to carry out an independent inquiry due to a perceived conflict of interest had the Scottish government’s own Law Officers been involved. Sir David was not referred to or confined to any part of the Ministerial Code.
Catherine Stihler had claimed the First Minister’s answer to a question from BBC interviewer Andrew Neil on March 3rd, in response to a question on EU advice, was false and that the subsequent refusal to answer her FoI request was an abuse of power.
In his response, Sir David recommended that the Ministerial Code be revised in parts pertaining to legal advice. He also highlighted subsequent explanations by the FM following the row over the interview, describing them as “muddled and not always clear”.
However he also acknowledged the interruptions from BBC presenter Andrew Neil had not helped instil clarity, and added:
“I am satisfied that you were trying genuinely to describe the underpinning process in the face of interruptions from Mr Neil, which it seems to me prompted you to talk about the conventions around legal advice.”
In a further blow to Mr Salmond’s opponents, Sir David also backed the Scottish government’s stance on the timing of its decision to specifically seek legal advice, which came after the historic Edinburgh Agreement.
He said: “I am also persuaded by your argument … that the Edinburgh Agreement was the appropriate moment to seek specific legal advice from the Law Officers.
“As you pointed out, it was only when the details of the referendum process became clear that you were in a position to seek such advice.”
Sir David also backed the Scottish government’s decision to challenge the ruling of the Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew, after she ruled in favour of Catherine Stihler’s FoI request.
He wrote: “In my view, the Scottish Government was acting consistently and within its rights when challenging the Information Commissioner’s Decision Notice.
“In doing so, it was upholding the principles of the confidentiality of legal advice in the [Ministerial] code. There was nothing improper in that.”
Sir David also addressed the unspecified nature of the legal advice being sought by Catherine Stihler, and said that whilst he could not be certain that the Scottish government was justified in claiming to hold no information, he was satisfied that there was no suggestion that the government sought to mislead.
He did though say that it “stretched credulity” to say that “no information” was held.
SNP MSP Aileen McLeod called on opposition politicians to accept the outcome and end their run of baseless accusations and smears. It is the sixth time that Mr Salmond has been cleared of breaking Ministerial rules after complaints by Unionist MSPs.
Commenting, Ms McLeod said:
“Sir David has investigated this matter thoroughly and concluded that the First Minister acted in accordance with the Ministerial Code. As he points out, the conclusion of the Edinburgh Agreement provided the right context to obtain advice from law officers – which is exactly what the Scottish Government has done.
“Time and time again, opposition politicians – unable to do their own job properly – have resorted to baseless accusations and personal insults, rather than debate the substantive issues themselves.
“We have now had six referrals under the ministerial code – and in all six cases, the independent verdict has been that the First Minister and his Ministers acted in accordance with the code.
“There are so many pressing issues facing this country, and at the start of the New Year our opposition politicians should be resolving to offer a more positive and grown-up debate that the people of Scotland deserve.”
However, opposition MSPs remained unrepentant. Labour MSP Paul Martin, who had called Mr Salmond a “bare faced liar” at the height of the row, said the First Minister should face a proper judge and jury.
He said people needed to be, “absolutely clear about this being an unfair process,” and added “we need to look forward and the Parliament needs to see a system in place where the First Minister is held to account by a proper judge and jury that is not appointed by the First Minister”
Mr Salmond today welcomed the findings: “I would like to thank Sir David for his very thorough and detailed report, the findings of which clearly demonstrate that there was no breach of the Ministerial Code on this matter.
“I welcome the report which demonstrates that I and the rest of the Scottish Government acted entirely in accordance with the Scottish Ministerial Code. I also welcome his conclusion that the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement was the appropriate moment at which to seek specific legal advice on an independent Scotland’s continued membership of the European Union.”