Nicola Sturgeon – what future?

The SNP will have to consider whether Ms Sturgeon remains an asset to her party as its deputy leader, not least after her involvement in the "Lunchgate" saga.

The weekend has seen continued question marks over the future of Scotland’s Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Last week it was reported that Ms Sturgeon provided a character reference for one of her Glasgow Govan constituents, Abdul Rauf, who had been convicted of fraudulently claiming £80,000 in benefits. This was on top of being imprisoned in 1996 for stealing almost £60,000 in pension and benefit payments when he ran a Post Office in Edinburgh.

The Deputy First Minister’s letter to the Sheriff who had convicted Rauf said:

“Mr Rauf has accepted his wrong doing and has experienced the consequences of it through the effect on his health, the distress caused to his family and the impact on his standing in his community.

“He and his wife are anxious that a custodial sentence may be imposed by the court and of the effect this will have on Mr Rauf’s health and the impact on family life.

“I would appeal to the court to take the points raised here into account and consider alternatives to a custodial sentence.”

Opposition reaction to the case was hostile. In calling for her resignation, Scottish Labour Leader Iain Gray accused Ms Sturgeon of an “appalling lack of judgement”. And David Cameron has made clear his view that she had “serious questions to answer”.

During heated exchanges in First Minister’s Questions (FMQs) last week, First Minister, Alex Salmond seemed to pray in aid Paragraph 8.1.1 of the MSPs code of conduct, which states:

“Every constituent is represented by one constituency MSP and seven regional MSPs.

“It is expected that each member will take on a case when approached although it is recognised that there may be legitimate reasons for a member to decline a constituent’s case in certain circumstances, for example, where a constituent requests an MSP to take inappropriate action, or if that case seeks action which would represent a conflict of interest with existing casework or is contrary to the member’s political beliefs.

“If so, the member would ordinarily be expected to inform the constituent that the member is not taking up the case.”

During FMQs, Salmond said:

“The code of conduct says, in paragraph 8.1.1 — let us quote it exactly —that it is expected that each member will take on a case when approached by a constituent. It goes on to specify the circumstances in which a member would not take on a case.

“The circumstances are that a constituent’s request could conflict with other interests or perhaps with “existing casework” — a conflict of interest in constituencies.”

Salmond’s case, however, misses the point. As the relevant section of the MSP code of conduct makes clear, it cites examples of what might constitute grounds for not accepting case work from a constituent.

The first minister’s defence however spins the code, by suggesting that the examples cited in the code are an exhaustive list of reasons not to take on casework. In essence, Salmond’s defence of Ms Sturgeon that she was somehow duty bound to take on the case hides the fact that his Deputy’s involvement in the Mr Rauf’s case was based on a judgement she made, rather than some sort of binding duty to do so.

Furthermore, in Scotland’s Ministerial Code of Conduct, paragraph 7.7 clearly states:

“On occasions, Ministers are asked to provide personal or job references for constituents. Ministers can of course do this provided they make clear that they are doing so as a constituency MSP and not a Minister.

“Particular care must be taken, however, to avoid any conflicts of interests and in some cases it may not be appropriate for a Minister to provide a reference, even as an MSP.”

The entire SNP case has been based on the fact that Ms Sturgeon was acting in her capacity as a constituency MSP. As the Ministerial Code makes clear, to provide references of the kind Sturgeon wrote for Mr Rauf, it would be inappropriate to do so as a minister, which in this case, could raise serious questions over a government seeking to influence an independent judiciary.

However, speaking at his court case, Rauf’s lawyer, Donald Findley QC presented Ms Sturgeon’s letter to the Sheriff by saying

“I have a letter of support from the deputy first minister of Scotland.”

It is significant that the letter was presented as one from the deputy first minister, rather than from the constituency MSP. Again, this raises questions over whether Ms Sturgeon was somehow using her position in Government to influence the sentence of a convicted fraudster

 It would seem appropriate for Scotland’s most senior civil servant, its permanent secretary, Sir John Elvidge to investigate to ensure that Ms Sturgeon in no way used her position as a Government minister in dealing with this case.

What is more, SNP MP, John Mason appeared to distance himself from his party’s deputy leader, concluding, “We all make mistakes and we just can’t have a society where every time somebody makes a mistake, their head gets chopped off.”

Next week Ms Sturgeon will be forced to make a statement on the issue to MSPs at Holyrood which will be awaited with bated breath. If she is unable to provide a convincing response to the many serious questions that have been raised, her position will again be in considerable doubt.

What is more, with the general election now a matter of months away, the SNP will have to consider whether Ms Sturgeon remains an asset to her party as its deputy leader, not least after her involvement in the so called “lunchgate” saga.

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