Before I turn to the substance of the debate, I will make a comment on motions of no confidence. I regard them as serious matters, not something to be brought forward without good reason and definitely not on the basis of political opportunism. Rather, they are a mechanism to hold the Government to account. Therefore, it is important to consider the substance of the issue that is before the chamber and decide on the motion on that basis; I do so as a member of the committee.
On 17 January 2019, the First Minister said:
“The inquiries will be able to request whatever material they want, and I undertake today that we will provide whatever material they request ... My commitment is that the Government and I will co-operate fully with it”.—[
, 17 January 2019; c 14.]
There were no caveats. She was not speaking personally; she was speaking as the head of the Government. There is no doubt about the First Minister’s meaning, but the Deputy First Minister appears to be wholly confused.
The committee has had partial information, delayed information and, in some cases, no information at all. The Government has treated a committee of the Parliament with contempt, and it has treated the Parliament with contempt, too. Let us not forget that the two votes in the chamber asking for the legal advice to be provided to the committee were simply ignored. The Lord Advocate was not even asked for permission to release the legal advice, because the Scottish National Party Government had no intention of handing it over. Indeed, that is what the cabinet secretary reportedly told a meeting of the SNP group.
We could paper the walls of the chamber with the endless letters from the committee to John Swinney asking to see counsel’s advice. At every turn, the answer was no. We then got a summary of advice from 31 October onwards—written by a civil servant, not a lawyer—which was not to be published, was to be seen in a reading room and could not be referred to directly in oral evidence or in the committee report. That was very secretive and very convenient.
It took the threat of a no confidence motion, supported by the Greens, to come along for the SNP to react. The cabinet secretary then fell over himself to give us the legal advice—well, at least some of it. There was then a drip, drip approach, with some of the legal advice kept back until after the First Minister had appeared to give oral evidence before the committee. However, I have to say, Presiding Officer, that the legal advice is still not all there.
I am not being pedantic for the sake of it. There were meetings in December. There were two critical meetings on 2 and 13 November, the latter involving the First Minister, the permanent secretary and the First Minister’s chief of staff, together with senior counsel. It is inconceivable that no notes were taken. The cabinet secretary’s response to the committee and to the chamber today is that there were no minutes, but there will have been notes—there absolutely will have been notes. Scottish Government lawyers and external counsel are required to take notes; it is a matter of professional duty to do so. The notes that were taken by them should be released to the committee. There can be no debate about that—absolutely none. The Government has waived legal privilege over other documents. Ultimately, those notes belong to the Scottish Government, and there is absolutely no reason for it not to release them to the committee immediately—unless, of course, it has something to hide.
The SNP Government has form. It withheld documents from the judicial review, which resulted in the “professional embarrassment” of its own senior counsel. It withheld documents despite a search warrant in the criminal case against Alex Salmond, which is, in itself, a crime. It has also withheld documents from the committee. There is a pattern of behaviour here, and it is one of obstruction, secrecy and contempt for the institution of this Parliament.
The motion of no confidence may be in John Swinney, but I am clear that it is the behaviour of the secretive national party that is truly outrageous.