Motion of No Confidence

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 10th March 2021.

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Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to rise to speak in favour of the motion. We have better things to be doing with our time. By rights, we should be focused on other things right now. We are, after all, in the last days of a parliamentary session and in the teeth of a global pandemic. By rights, the Salmond inquiry should have concluded months ago, with complainers allowed to forget about this sorry business. It did not, so they have not. By rights, the disclosure of all relevant material and evidence to our committee should never have been an issue for parliamentary debate, given that the First Minister promised our inquiry ready and total access to the documents that we needed.

It is entirely due to the obstruction and sleight of hand deployed by this Administration that we have arrived at this point and Liberal Democrats have no confidence in the Deputy First Minister. Ahead of the First Minister’s appearance before our committee, her deputy assured us and the watching public that all relevant legal advice had been disclosed in good time for her to answer to it, but the worst of it appeared after the fact. That was bad faith on the part of the Deputy First Minister. My colleagues and I could and would have asked different questions of the First Minister had we seen on Tuesday that which was delivered to us on Thursday and on Friday. Those documents revealed the enormity of the embarrassment to senior counsel, and their threat to resign was confirmed in documents that were received only late last week.

What has been provided to us today is one thing; what is missing is something else entirely. Both Ruth Davidson and Jackie Baillie have highlighted several meetings and consultations that were without minutes. The meeting of 13 November is critical, because it had in attendance the First Minister and the permanent secretary, and it was just a fortnight after senior counsel had told the Government that it was likely to lose and probably should concede. In that same advice from 31 October, Roddy Dunlop QC told the Government that folding then could allow the Government to restart the complaints handling process, offering the women at the heart of the process a fair hearing with appropriate safeguards in place. I asked the First Minister about that when she came to our committee and she confirmed that the women were never notified about that possibility and that their views were never sought. The Government was at a crossroads in those vital days, and the advice that was received and decisions that were taken at that meeting could have shaped the final outcome entirely.

The optics for a Government already mired in accusations of a cover-up over this are terrible. Either explanation could point to a breach of the ministerial code. Not taking a minute is a breach in and of itself, but far worse is that the minutes of those meetings could have been deliberately held back from our committee to protect the First Minister by hiding a more ruinous breach on her part. We will never know. It is astonishing to learn also that perhaps even counsel are unable to produce notes of that meeting, so we will have no idea of their read-out whatsoever.

I do not harbour personal animosity towards John Swinney, but this is the second time that he has tested the confidence of the Parliament. Although he might escape with his job intact today, I put him on notice that there may be a third motion of no confidence in him. A motion in the name of Willie Rennie was passed in the chamber last month compelling John Swinney to release the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review of secondary education. To date, he has not done that, so the Deputy First Minister stands again in contempt of Parliament and again he may be subject to its judgment if he does not produce the review in short order. I say to Mr Swinney that he should act on the Parliament’s instruction that he produce the OECD report or we will be back here next week or the week after with a similar motion to today’s, and he might not be so certain of Green Party support on that issue.