Inquiry clears Salmond on EU advice but attacks him for “muddled” thinking

Alex Salmond was yesterday cleared of misleading the public over the Scottish Government’s stance in relation to the position of an independent Scotland within the European Union.

In October, the First Minister referred himself to be investigated by Sir David Bell, Vice Chancellor of Reading University, amid allegations, led by the Labour MEP Catherine Stihler, that he had mislead the public.

During an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil earlier this year, asked whether Ministers at Holyrood had sought advice from law offices on the position of an independent Scotland within Europe, the First Minister replied, “we have, yes, in terms of the debate.” Indeed, Ministers north of the border went as far as to launch a legal battle, at tax payer’s expense, to prevent the publication of such legal advice as called for by Scotland’s Information Commissioner.

By October however, it was revealed that despite the rouge created there was no advice, with the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon explaining that Ministers were only then commissioning law officers to provide pertinent legal advice on the manner. It led to the First Minister being dubbed a “barefaced liar” by Scottish Labour.

Whilst in his report on the matter Sir David, a former Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education in London cleared Ministers of any breach of the Ministerial Code, he none the less says of Salmond’s interview with Andrew Neil:

“Responding as you did, you got off on the wrong foot, so that your attempt afterwards to describe the underpinning process was somewhat muddled and incomplete and later became confused with references to conventions protecting other forms of legal advice.

“In these circumstances, one can understand the reaction of Ms Stihler and others when they subsequently compared your comments with the deputy first minister’s statement on 23 October.”

Declaring his delight at having been cleared of any breach of the Ministerial Code, Alex Salmond concluded:

“This has been the sixth complaint to be referred to the independent panel of advisers I introduced in 2008 to rule on these matters.  I am delighted that each complaint has been dismissed and the advisers concluded my ministers and I have acted entirely properly at all times.”

Scottish Labour however has responded by concluding that the report demonstrates that Alex Salmond cannot be trusted. In attacking the First Minister for picking both the judge and the charges to be investigated, Labour’s business manager at Holyrood, Paul Martin observed of Salmond:

“The First Minister got to pick the judge in this case and he got to pick the charges. And yet even in those circumstances Salmond is found to have evaded questions and used muddle and confusion.

“Yet bare-faced Salmond has the brass neck to crow that this report completely clears him. The truth is, as this report shows, you cannot trust the words which come out of Alex Salmond’s mouth.”

Concluding meanwhile that the inquiry has “failed”, the Scotsman’s leader column this morning concludes:

It has failed because there is little confidence in parliament, and no doubt other places, in the findings of this inquiry. A verdict in which there is no confidence is no verdict at all.

“If there is not broad consensus to trust an inquiry to come to a genuinely independent verdict, then having such an inquiry is a waste of time and money. If an inquiry is to assure people that politicians are accountable to parliament and the electorate then it has to be set up to allow that outcome. This one wasn’t. Whoever leads such an investigation must have broad cross-party support if appointed by the First Minster, or be appointed by a cross party committee.”

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