The Alex Salmond inquiry has concluded that Nicola Sturgeon misled Holyrood, STV News understands.
MSPs on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints Committee voted 5 to 4 that the First Minister gave an “inaccurate” account of a meeting with her predecessor during the live investigation, according to a source.
The decision is likely to increase pressure on Sturgeon to stand down before May’s election, with opposition leaders stating that ministers who breach the ministerial code have a duty to resign. However, it is unclear if the act was deemed a resignation-worthy offence.
The Scottish Conservatives intend to push forward a vote of no confidence in the First Minister next week.
The committee was setup to review the Scottish Government’s unlawful handling of the investigation into allegations of harassment against former first minister Alex Salmond. A court ruled that the investigation had been botched in a process which cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands – including more than £500,000 for Salmond’s legal fees.
Sturgeon appeared before the committee on March 3 where she was asked if she broke the ministerial code. Salmond had said he believed she had.
Sturgeon initially claimed she first found out about the investigation into Salmond on April 2, 2018, at a meeting she did not know the nature of beforehand.
But another meeting, on March 29 with Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, came to light at which it is claimed she was given details. The suggestion is that the First Minister would have known what the second meeting was about and should have informed civil servants as it was government business – she did not.
Sturgeon told the inquiry that she wished her memory of the time was “more vivid” and that the shocking revelations she heard on April 2 may have “obliterated” what happened previously.
She said she did not record the second meeting right away for fear it would compromise the confidentiality of the process – she said she should not even have known such an investigation into a former first minister was going on.
The inquiry is still finalising its report and is not due to publish until 8am on Tuesday, March 23.
Lawyer James Hamilton QC, former head of public prosecutions in Ireland, is leading another inquiry into whether Sturgeon breached the ministerial code.
The publication of Hamilton’s report is also expected in the coming days.
A Scottish Parliament spokesperson said: “Further to media reports on the sommittee’s findings, the committee is still finalising its report. There will be no further comment on the report ahead of its publication.”
A spokesperson for the First Minister: “The First Minister told the truth to the committee in eight hours of evidence, and stands by that evidence.
“It is clear from past public statements that opposition members of this committee had prejudged the First Minister at the outset of the inquiry and before hearing a word of her evidence, so this partisan and selective briefing – before the committee has actually published its final report – is hardly surprising.
“The question of the First Minister’s adherence to the ministerial code is being considered independently by James Hamilton, and we expect to receive and publish his report soon.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “The Committee will publish its findings in the coming days and we will wait for that report. However, we are really only waiting for confirmation of what we already know.
“We have detailed that the First Minister misled the Scottish Parliament. Nicola Sturgeon has not told the public the truth about what she knew and when.
“We cannot set a precedent that a First Minister of Scotland can mislead the Scottish Parliament and get away with it. We have to trust that the First Minister will be truthful. We no longer can.
“It is the duty of Scotland’s opposition to hold the government to account. That is what the Scottish Conservatives have done throughout this sorry affair, which has so badly let down the women who came forward and damaged the standing of Scotland’s institutions.
“We have called out the First Minister based on the overwhelming evidence that she misled Parliament. We will continue to hold her to the same standards as previous First Ministers of Scotland and demand that she resigns.”
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said: “I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the committee report and we await its findings, but if it does conclude that the First Minister has misled Parliament and potentially breached the ministerial code then that is incredibly serious.
“This is about the integrity of our Scottish Parliament and upholding standards in public life.
“The separate Hamilton inquiry has yet to report, and all parties must be given due process, however the code which the First Minister has promised to follow by the letter is clear – any minister who is found in breach of the ministerial code has a duty to resign.”
Analysis by Colin Mackay:
The committee investigating the government’s handling of complaints against Alex Salmond is made up of four SNP MSPs and five opposition MSPs.
On Thursday night, they voted five to four that the First Minister gave an “inaccurate” account of a meeting with Alex Salmond. That means that they believe that she misled their committee, and ultimately the parliament, about whether she agreed to intervene in the complaints process.
She said at the committee that she wanted to “let [Alex Salmond] “down gently”.
Mr Salmond says that she did agree to intervene on his behalf. In her written evidence Ms Sturgeon said that she didn’t, but in her oral evidence she admitted that she could have been clearer.
The committee does not say that she “knowingly misled” them, that would be a much more serious situation. A spokesperson for the First Minister said she stands by her evidence.
The committee will publish their full report on Tuesday morning, but the key report in all of this is the Hamilton Inquiry, it has been conducted behind closed doors.
It is specifically investigating allegations that Nicola Sturgeon broke the ministerial code.
All of this tonight puts more pressure on the First Minister and the Scottish Conservatives have confirmed that they will push their confidence vote in her next week just before parliament breaks up ahead of the election.