Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has spoken of the “moment she will never forget” when Alex Salmond showed her a letter detailing sexual harassment claims against him.
She told a Scottish parliament committee: “What he described constituted, in my view, deeply inappropriate behaviour on his part – perhaps another reason why that moment is embedded so strongly in my mind.”
Recalling when Mr Salmond handed her the letter at her Glasgow home on 2 April 2018, Ms Sturgeon said: “My head was spinning, I was experiencing a maelstrom of emotions, I had been told something pretty shocking by Alex Salmond and there were a number of things in my head.”
Ms Sturgeon is facing calls from the Scottish Conservatives to resign following claims she misled parliament about the meeting with her predecessor.
She said she did not “immediately record the April 2 meeting” as she did not want it to become public and risk “breaching the confidentiality of the process”.
She added she had no intention of intervening in the investigation process and did not intervene, saying to do so would have been an abuse of her role.
The first minister had originally claimed she first became aware of the Scottish government investigation into Mr Salmond on 2 April 2018, before later admitting to a 29 March meeting with Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein.
Mr Aberdein claims he discussed the complaints with her in that meeting in her office.
Ms Sturgeon was giving witness evidence to Holyrood’s harassment committee. In the hearing:
- She said 2 April was when “any suspicions I had or general awareness there was a problem became actual and detailed knowledge”
- She said that at the 29 March meeting, Mr Aberdein “did indicate a harassment-type issue had arisen, but my recollection is he did so in general terms”
- She wishes her memory of 29 March meeting was “more vivid”, but “it was the detail of the complaints under the procedure that I was given on 2 April that was significant and indeed shocking”
- She denied having any reason to “get” Mr Salmond
- She denied misleading parliament and insisted the government has to nothing to hide
- She said it was “absurd” to suggest anyone acted with malice or plotted against Mr Salmond
- She apologised to two women who made complaints against Mr Salmond
She rebutted allegations made by her predecessor in his evidence last week that she had breached the ministerial code on several occasions.
On the botched government investigation into the claims against Mr Salmond, she said the two women who had complained about him had been let down by a “very serious mistake”.
And she repeated her apology to them and the taxpayer for the hundreds of thousands spent on the judicial review into Mr Salmond’s probe by her government.
His legal costs of £512,000 were paid for by the Scottish government in August 2019 after the review ruled that the government investigation into complaints was “tainted by apparent bias”.
He was acquitted of 13 charges in March 2020 following a criminal trial.
Ms Sturgeon denied that she had any reason to “get” Mr Salmond and labelled as “absurd” his claims of a plot against him.
The first minister rejected the “suggestion that anyone acted with malice or as part of a plot against Alex Salmond”, saying the “claim is not based in any fact”.
She added: “There is nothing here that the government has to hide.”
She said she acted “properly and appropriately” in the handling of harassment claims against her predecessor.
The first minister addressed a central allegation that she breached the ministerial code by misleading parliament about when she learned of complaints against Alex Salmond.
She told parliament she was told by Mr Salmond when he handed her a letter detailing the complaints in her home on 2 April 2018.
That has been contradicted by an account from Geoff Aberdein, who has said he discussed the complaints with her in her office four days earlier, on 29 March 2018.
Ms Sturgeon told the committee there hadn’t been mention of any specifics during the March meeting.
She said: “Geoff did indicate that a harassment-type issue had arisen, but my recollection is that he did so in general terms.
“Since an approach from Sky News in November 2017 (regarding complaints by female staff at Edinburgh Airport of perceived ‘inappropriate’ behaviour, which he denies) I had harboured a lingering suspicion that such issues in relation to Mr Salmond might rear their head – so hearing of a potential issue would not have been, in itself, a massive shock.
“What I recall most strongly about the conversation is how worried Geoff seemed to be about Alex’s welfare and state of mind – which, as a friend, concerned me.
“He also said he thought Alex might be considering resigning his party membership.
“It was these factors that led me to meet him, and it was these factors that placed the meeting on 2 April firmly in the personal and party space.”
Mr Salmond has said that the first minister offered to intervene after he told her of complaints against him and that position is corroborated.
Duncan Hamilton QC, Mr Salmond’s legal adviser, has told the inquiry in a written submission that he attended the 2 April meeting and recalls Ms Sturgeon saying: “If it comes to it, I will intervene.”
The first minister insisted that she did not intervene and made no offer to do so.
There has been controversy around the fact that she didn’t record the 2 April 2018 meeting as government business out of a “desire to protect the independence and the confidentiality of the process”.
Mr Salmond had said that no-one present at the 2 April 2018 meeting was in any doubt what the meeting had been arranged for.
Nicola Sturgeon countered that suggestion, saying: “When he [Mr Salmond] arrived at my house he was insistent that he speak to me entirely privately – away from his (others in the house).
“That would hardly have been necessary had there already been a shared understanding on the part of all of us.”
The Scottish government released its legal advice on the eve of Ms Sturgeon’s witness appearance.
It had indicated concerns among government legal counsel about losing a challenge against a judicial review launched by Mr Salmond.
He has claimed that it constituted a breach of the ministerial code by the first minister because she allowed her government to continue with an expensive legal action that was doomed to failure.
Ms Sturgeon rejected any breach, saying: “In any legal challenge a government faces, there is a balance of risk. That risk cannot be eliminated, but the task of ministers is to consider carefully all the advice we receive and consider the broader public interest.
“And the test in the ministerial code is not the view of external lawyers but of the law officers.”
On Mr Salmond’s allegation that he was the victim of a plot by senior figures in the SNP and Scottish government to damage him and remove him from public life, Ms Sturgeon called that “absurd”.
She said: “That claim is not based in any fact. What happened is this and it is simple.
“A number of women made serious complaints about Alex Salmond’s behaviour.
“The government – despite the mistake it undoubtedly made – tried to do the right thing.
“As first minister, I refused to follow the age old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and connections to get what he wants.”
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