NICOLA Sturgeon, her officials and her husband could be forced to give evidence under oath to the Holyrood inquiry about Alex Salmond.

MSPs today discussed the plan at their first public meeting since Mr Salmond was acquitted of 13 counts of sexual assault in March.

The special Holyrood committee was set up last year to investigate the Scottish Government’s botched sexual misconduct probe into Mr Salmond and its aftermath.

At today's meeting, Tory MSP and advocate Donald Cameron proposed using the committee’s powers to take evidence under oath to maximise its accuracy and quality.

He was backed by Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton.

The committee is expected to decide later this week whether to take evidence on oath.

The MSPs have already decided to take evidence from Ms Sturgeon, Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon's most powerful official, the Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans.

It confirmed today that it also intends to take evidence from Ms Sturgeon's husband, the SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.

It will also call deputy First Minister John Swinney, Ms Sturgeon's chief of staff, Mr Salmond's former chief of staff, and the Lord Advocate, James Wolffe QC.

Ms Sturgeon has said she will cooperate fully.

Mr Salmond gave evidence under oath at his trial.

HeraldScotland: Nicola Sturgeon and her husband Peter MurrellNicola Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell

Ms Evans is likely to be among the first witnesses called when the committee meets weekly from August.

Under a rarely used power in 1998 Scotland Act, anyone giving evidence to the parliament can be required to take an oath.

It is a criminal offence to refuse to take an oath punishable by up to three months in jail or a £5000 fine upon conviction.

Giving false evidence is punishable by up to five years in jail.

If an official or politician was found to have misled the committee under oath it would also end their career.

The committee’s focus is the Government’s in-house probe into two complaints of sexual misconduct made against Mr Salmond in 2018 by two female civil servants.

The inquiry’s existence became public in August that year, and Mr Salmond resigned from the SNP after 45 years as a member in the resulting furore.

He then launched a crowdfunded judicial review at the Court of Session to have the probe’s findings struck down.

In January 2019, the Scottish Government was forced to admit in court that its probe had been unfair, unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias” because the investigating officer had been in prior contact with the complainants.


READ MORE: The Alex Salmond trial is over but backlash yet to come 

Taxpayers were left with a £500,000 bill for Mr Salmond’s legal costs as a result.

It then emerged that Ms Sturgeon maintained contact with Mr Salmond while he was being investigated by her officials.

She said Mr Salmond had told her about the probe for the first time at a meeting at her house in early 2019, when he made it clear he thought it should be stopped.

Even though she was not supposed to know about the probe, Ms Sturgeon failed to tell Ms Evans about what Mr Salmond had told her for another month.

The First Minister only mentioned it on the eve of meeting Mr Salmond a second time, at the SNP conference in Aberdeen.

She then met Mr Salmond for a third time and spoke to him twice on the phone.

Mr Cameron said: “The committee should take sworn evidence, evidence on oath. 

“We are able to do this. It’s provided for in Section 26 of the Scotland Act an in Standing Orders rule 12.4.2.

”It’s the case of [the] Convener administering an oath or affirmation with each witness that comes before us.

“The reasons for that are two-fold in my view. It seems absolutely imperative that the evidence we get can be as accurate as can be.

“We need the opportunity to test booth its credibility and it’s veracity. Not least because we’re likely to get conflicting versions of events, and there will be disputed areas of facts.

“Secondly, we are dealing with very serious matters involving the highest echelons of the Scottish civil service and the conduct of very senior ministers past and present.

“Taking sworn evidence underscores the gravity of the subject matter of this inquiry and will ensure we get the best possible evidence.”

Mr Cameron also said there had been “very regrettable delays” in the Scottish Government producing documents about its complaints policy for ministers and former ministers.

He said the committee also had powers to compel the production of documents and should identify specific documents or classes of documents it wanted from witnesses and officials.

Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “I share [the] concern about the very regrettable delays. Some were caused by the sub judice aspects of the trial, some were caused by government capacity issues due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Nevertheless, a lot of what we’ve asked for has been prepared by Scottish Government officials already for the conduct of the judicial review, and I feel that sometimes this committee has felt like a bit of an afterthought to the work of government.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily taken our requests as seriously as it might. I would remind the committee we have the power to compel evidence. 

“I hope we don’t have to. I hope we have better cooperation going forward.

“I’d like to reiterate Donald Cameron’s request to have witnesses heard on oath. 

“I think that this is a very important consideration. We will hear conflicting stories and I think it’s vital we have confidence in what we as a committee hear.”

With the committee also looking at the “culture” in the Scottish Government, Labour MSP Jackie Baillie suggested calling Ms Evans’s two predecessors to give evidence, the former permanent secretaries Sir John Elvidge and Sir Peter Housden.

Ms Bailie also suggested the committee could meet in the Holyrood chamber to allow witnesses to give evidence subject to physical distancing.

She said: "I recollect us writing to the First Minister writing for hard copy or electronic records, both in terms of personal telephone messages and also copies of emails.

“I believe we’ve discussed doing the same for the SNP because at some point there was a discussion about SNP emails being used between ministers and special advisers, and of course from Alex Salmond as a consequence of the information he will have as a result of the judicial review.

“In terms of witness, the First Minister and the former First Minister are likely to be invited, as indeed are people involved with the political meetings between both the First Minister and the former First Minister.

“I’m also keen to explore if we can have the two former permanent secretaries, as they will give some helpful context as to the culture and the development of this [complaints] policy."

Shortly after the judicial review result, Mr Salmond was charged with a series of sexual offences, including attempted rape, which he denied.

After he was cleared on all counts at the High Court in Edinburgh, he and his allies suggested he had been the victim of a politically motivated plot to destroy him.

Ms Sturgeon recently dismissed the conspiracy theory as a “heap of nonsense”.

Asked about the idea on BBC Newsnight, she said: “There was no conspiracy. It’s a heap of nonsense. 

“But I’ll, as I say, in the fullness of time get the opportunity to elaborate on that view.”

READ MORE: Opinion: Mark Smith: I agree with Nicola – we Scots have been looking at our history and identity the wrong way

MSPs on the committee will examine how the Government probe was bungled, and whether Ms Sturgeon’s behaviour broke the code of conduct for ministers, which suggests her private meetings with Mr Salmond should have been reported to officials immediately.

Mr Salmond is currently writing a book about the “nightmare” of his prosecution and trial.

After the verdict, Mr Salmond’s former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars said the former First Minister’s book would be like a “volcanic eruption” for those at the top of the SNP.

Mr Sillars said the “rot” inside the party may be so bad that the Yes movement may need to set up a new party in it place.

Another ally of Mr Salmond, the East Lothian MP and former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, also claimed “dark forces” had been at work in the criminal case.

SNP committee convener Linda Fabiani concluded: “We’ve agreed to work through the inquiry in three phases. 

“Firstly, the actions taken in relation to the policy on handling harassment complaints involving current and former ministers, including development of policy and the handling of the complaints. What’s also come out quite strongly is a view that we should also be looking at the culture of the organisation within which that development and handling grew.

“Secondly of course there’s the judicial review and then there’s the actions taken in relation to the Scottish ministerial code.

“We’ve already sought extensive written evidence from the Scottish Government, and now seek written evidence form a number of others. I pretty sure there will be more witnesses identified once we receive written evidence over the summer.”

“It’s all agreed that we will call the Permanent Secretary and relevant officials to give evidence in August.”

A Scottish Parliament spokesperson said: “At its meeting today, the Committee agreed to invite the Permanent Secretary to give evidence to the Committee in mid-August.

“The Committee also agreed a list of potential witnesses to invite written evidence from at this stage. This list will be published shortly.

“Over the summer the Committee will be gathering evidence as it begins its inquiry. Letters inviting written evidence will be published when they are issued and submissions to the inquiry will be made available on the Parliament’s website.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “No deadlines have been missed.

"The written information requested by the Committee was provided, as requested, in advance of its meeting.

“Those documents fully set out the Scottish Government’s response to the first set of questions asked by the Committee.

“We welcome the opportunity which the parliamentary inquiry will bring to address issues which have been raised, and we will not pre-empt that process.”