Ministerial Code (Potential Breach)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 10 February 2021.

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Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

2. As a member of the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, I will not prejudge the outcome before the First Minister gives evidence next week, and she knows that I am not a great believer in conspiracy theories. However, it appears that the Government procedures were deeply flawed and that two women were let down by the process. I think that we would all agree that we must ensure that that never happens again.

The First Minister knows this, because she has just referenced it, but she is subject to a referral for a potential breach of the ministerial code, which is being investigated by James Hamilton QC. The ministerial code exists to protect the public interest, to ensure that there is trust between politicians and the public and to allow the public to hold the Government to account. It is therefore critically important. If the First Minister is found to have breached the ministerial code, will she resign?

The First Minister:

That is the Jackie Baillie who is not prejudging the outcome of the process. Women who have been involved in the committee process have—I know, because it has been published—written to the committee, saying that they think the committee process is now letting them down; it is important not to lose sight of that.

I still hope that the committee will use the powers that are available to it to ensure that everybody relevant gives evidence, but that is a matter for the committee and for Jackie Baillie. When the committee has concluded its work, when James Hamilton QC has concluded his inquiry—again, I am co-operating fully with that inquiry, as I am obliged to do—and when the outcomes of those are published, people can ask me that question and I will set out what I intend to do. However, I do not believe that I breached the ministerial code. That is my position right now, and I am entitled to due process just like everybody else.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I say to the First Minister that I am not prejudging the outcome of the inquiry in relation to the ministerial code; I asked her what action she would take if she had breached it, not about the committee. The First Minister cannot simply ignore the ministerial code—that would have deeply damaging consequences for the Parliament, the Government and our democracy.

On 29 March 2018, the First Minister attended a meeting here, in the Parliament, with Geoff Aberdein, who is the former chief of staff to Alex Salmond. The First Minister claimed to have forgotten about that meeting and told the Parliament that it was “fleeting” and “opportunistic”, but the meeting was pre-arranged for the specific purpose of discussing the complaints that were made against Alex Salmond. I remind the First Minister of paragraph 1.3(c) of the ministerial code, which states:

“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to the Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead the Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation”.

I ask again: if the First Minister is found to have breached the ministerial code, will she resign?

The First Minister:

I do not believe that I did breach the ministerial code, so I will not engage with that hypothetical question. When James Hamilton QC issues his report, we can have an open discussion on the basis of whatever findings he arrives at, just as we will, no doubt, have an open discussion when the committee arrives at whatever findings it arrives at.

Jackie Baillie is really stretching it here in saying that she is not prejudging things and then asking me a string of questions that are designed exactly to prejudge the outcome of this. She will get the opportunity to raise all those issues and ask whatever questions she chooses—not only on selected bits, but on the whole course of things—in proper full session on Tuesday. I look forward to having that opportunity, when we will do that properly. That is the best way to ensure full scrutiny of me and my Government and to respect the rights and interests of the women whose complaints started the whole process, and it is the best way to allow me due process, which I am entitled to.

I look forward to having that opportunity, and I say again that, if the committee is really interested in having proper full transparency, it will ensure that everybody who has relevant information to offer comes before it and does so fully, openly, on the record and on oath, just as I will do on Tuesday.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Every time I ask a question about the ministerial code investigation, the First Minister replies with rhetoric about the committee. I look forward to questioning her on Tuesday at the committee, but my questions are specific to the ministerial code investigation that is being conducted by James Hamilton QC. It is not only a question of whether Parliament has been misled that the First Minister should be investigated in relation to. Paragraph 2.30 of the ministerial code states:

“Ministers and officials should therefore ensure that their decisions are informed by appropriate analysis of the legal considerations and that the legal implications of any course of action are considered at the earliest opportunity.”

We know that, in the judicial review, there was a significant delay between counsel’s opinion and the conceding of the case, and that it took the threat of senior counsel resigning before the Government collapsed the judicial review, which cost the taxpayer well over £600,000. I ask again: if the First Minister is found to have breached the ministerial code, will she resign?

The First Minister:

Jackie Baillie stands there and says, in one breath, that she is not prejudging the outcome of things but says, in the next breath, “We know things.” That is before the committee has even heard a single word in oral session from me.

I think that Jackie Baillie should decide whether she is really open-minded, objective and impartial on the matter or whether she has prejudged the issue. I suspect that, for Jackie Baillie and for some Conservatives, it does not matter what I say next Tuesday: the press releases will already be written, just as I suspect they were before my husband appeared before the committee for the second time, earlier this week.

I am well aware of the terms of the ministerial code—I am probably more aware of them than Jackie Baillie is—and I do not consider that I breached the ministerial code. I will make that case very robustly. Let us wait to see what the findings are of James Hamilton’s inquiry when they are arrived at and published—remember, I referred myself to James Hamilton for the inquiry—and then we can have all these discussions, but let us not prejudge the outcome.

I know why the Opposition parties are desperate to get rid of me—I am under no illusions about that—but, just like everybody else, I am entitled to due process and I do not need lectures on democracy from Jackie Baillie.