THE Holyrood inquiry into the Alex Salmond affair is heading for an immediate clash over Scottish Government secrecy after ministers and officials again refused to disclose evidence.

The cross-party committee is expected to push back hard when it grills the Government’s top official, the Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, in its opening session tomorrow.

After a protracted tussle with the Government, the inquiry’s MSPs are now considering Parliament’s rarely-used power to compel the production of documents.

Opposition parties accused the Government of "evasiveness" and said the public wanted "scrutiny, not secrecy".  

It follows Ms Evans and deputy First Minister John Swinney both rejecting the committee’s demands for access to civil servants and Government documents.

The committee is looking at how the Government botched an in-house probe into sexual misconduct claims made against Mr Salmond in 2018. 

Mr Salmond had the exercise set aside in a judicial review at the Court of Session, forcing ministers to admit it had been unfair, unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”.

The collapse of the Government’s case in January 2019 left taxpayers with a £500,000 legal bill for Mr Salmond’s costs, and the Holyrood inquiry is investigating what happened. 

The MSPs are also looking at whether Nicola Sturgeon broke the Scottish ministerial code by staying in contact with Mr Salmond while her officials were investigating him.

Despite the judicial review being central to the inquiry’s work, the Government has refused to release any of the legal and court papers related to the case, citing legal privilege.

The committee last week urged the Government to waive its privilege and cooperate.

However newly released letters show the Government has instead dug in.

Mr Swinney told the inquiry that if the Government were to waive legal privilege in this case it would undermine the ability of ministers to receive “full and frank” legal advice in future.

He said: “This would not be in the interests of good government and the upholding of the rule of law. Successive administrations of different political complexions have reached the same conclusion in respect of other subject matter.” 

He said this need not impede the inquiry as the Government could still explain its legal position at specific points in time.

However this denies the committee the all-important text of the Government’s arguments before the court.

Mr Swinney said a court undertaking prevented ministers releasing the probe into Mr Salmond which was set aside by the Court, or any witness statements, working notes and drafts of the report used by the investigating official.

Mr Swinney also said court papers used in the judicial review were now the property of the court. 

Finally, Mr Swinney repeated Ms Evans’s objection to the committee obtaining written and oral evidence from civil servants.

He said that officials giving “personal reflections or private opinions” about Government matters, rather than representing their ministers, would be “entirely contrary” to civil service practice and “not possible under the civil service code”.

This sets up a key clash over whether Ms Sturgeon’s chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, can give evidence.

The committee says she should be included among its witness, while the Government wants to block access to her, and cover her activity in a general narrative.

Mr Swinney said: “I must emphasise that officials’ attendance is on behalf of and with the consent of Ministers, and not on an individual or personal basis. Neither Scottish Ministers nor the Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government have the power to set aside or suspend the application of the Civil Service Code in Scotland. “

The refusals make it more likely the MSPs will try to go around the Government and seek documents directly from the Court of Session or try to compel disclosure from ministers.

Last week they warned they would “not hesitate to explore all options available”, a reference to the Scottish Parliament’s powers to compel the disclosure of documents.

The inquiry said it felt “frustration and disappointment” at the government sitting on swathes of evidence related to the judicial review it lost to Mr Salmond. 

Liberal Democrat committee member Alex Cole-Hamilton criticised the Government for its “evasiveness” and said witnesses must be “open and transparent”.

 “A government process that was designed to help victims of bullying and harassment failed utterly and left workers, who had already suffered, exposed and denied natural justice.

"This committee must get to the bottom of a series of events that has cost Scottish taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds and left the Scottish Government deeply embarrassed. 

“The committee has already faced challenges over securing documents and statements from persons of interest. That evasiveness does not serve the people of Scotland well. 

“As the committee moves to the next stage, we will expect witnesses to be open and transparent about their role in this saga.” 

Labour member Jackie Baillie said: “It is disappointing that having promised full co-operation, the Scottish Government now seem intent on withholding crucial information from the Committee.

"It is important that a parliamentary committee should not be hindered in its’ inquiry and frankly, this is not a good look for the Scottish Government. 

“After the focus brought to sexual harassment by the #MeToo movement, the public have a right to know how the Scottish Government handled the allegations of sexual harassment and whether taxpayers money was appropriately spent.”

MSP Murdo Fraser said Ms Sturgeon and Ms Evans “cannot pick and choose” which documents the inquiry investigates.

One of the Scottish Tories members on the inquiry, he said: “Everyone recognises the need to protect the identity of complainants and that the Scottish Government must meet its obligations on data protection and to the courts.

“But enough has been hidden behind closed doors in SNP Government corridors, from the Alex Salmond court case failures to the vast number of bullying allegations revealed over the weekend.

“The committee cannot fulfil its function without full transparency. If we only receive part of the evidence, we will only be able to produce part of an inquiry report.

“The Scottish public want scrutiny, not more secrecy. Nicola Sturgeon and Leslie Evans can’t pick and choose what evidence the inquiry gets to see.”