NICOLA Sturgeon has refused to discuss why almost £55,000 of public money was spent preparing civil service witnesses for the Alex Salmond inquiry.
The First Minister repeatedly declined to answer questions about the ‘coaching’ row when it was raised at the daily briefing, saying she did not the details.
She also claimed she was unable to discuss the issue as she was due to testify to the inquiry, saying: “Those who are due to give evidence, which includes me, are not meant to talk to others who are giving evidence.”
However Government records show numerous officials taking part in joint preparations for the inquiry, including the Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans.
One key witness was even recorded as having a half-hour meeting with another “to get a sense of his experience on the day and his preparation”.
The Scottish Tories said the failure of Ms Sturgeon’s legendary grasp of detail was “astonishing”.
The First Minister also denied the credibility of the briefings was being affected by her being investigated over allegedly misleading the Scottish Parliament in relation to Mr Salmond.
The Daily Telegraph today reported that by early November the Scottish Government had spent £54,378 on external assistance to help officials get ready for testifying to MSPs.
Four of the six witnesses involved subsequently had to correct evidence given under oath despite spending several hours in preparation.
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The inquiry is investigating the Scottish Government’s bungled handling of sexual misconduct claims against Mr Salmond in 2018.
The former First Minister had the probe set aside in a judicial review by showing it had “tainted by apparent bias”, resulting in taxpayers having to pay £512,000 for his costs.
According to the Telegraph’s freedom of information requests, the Government’s director of communications and ministerial support, Barbara Allison, spent two weekends and set aside two working days to prepare for two evidence sessions.
She initially denied receiving a message from Ms Sturgeon’s top official, Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, on the day Mr Salmond won his civil case which said “battle maybe lost but not the war”.
However, after retrieving phone evidence thought lost, she later confirmed that she had.
The message is often cited by Mr Salmond’s supporters as evidence of a plot against him.
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Ms Evans herself also spent three-and-a-half hours preparing for her first two sessions, as well as conducting preparation work over two weekends, according to the FoI.
She has so far been asked to make a record four appearances before the inquiry.
Judith Mackinnon, the investigating officer whose prior contact with Mr Salmond’s accusers sank the Government’s defence, spent 23.5 hours preparing for her appearance in October.
These included a 90 minute “trial run” the day before her appearance.
She had a half-hour meeting with James Hynd, head of cabinet, to “get a sense of his experience onthe day and his preparation for committee”.
Mr Hynd prepared for 21-and-a-half hours for one session.
Asked to justify senior officials spending so much time on the inquiry during the pandemic, and the associated costs, and whether the external assistance was a PR firm or lawyers, Ms Sturgeon said she did not know the details.
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She said: “I don’t know what it was for. One of the things around the committee [of inquiry]is that those who are due to give evidence, which includes me, are not meant to talk to others who are giving evidence. I’m sure the Government will answer any questions on that.”
Pressed on why time and money was being spent on this issue against the backdrop of the pandemic, the First Minister said: “I don’t know the detail of it. For the reasons set out, I can’t answer your question.
“I think anybody watching us every day, watching the whole response, would draw the conclusion that this Government is focused on the pandemic.
“Obviously other things happen and other things get attention from government. Much of that has been drowned out by Covid. It is not be the case that there will not be officials in government doing different things, different days as required, but I don’t know the detail to give you the answer to the question.”
Later, Ms Sturgeon was asked how the credibility of the daily Covid briefings was being affected by her being investigated for allegedly misleading parliament over controversial meetings with Mr Salmond while her officials were investigating her.
She said: “I don’t, and I think all the evidence would suggest that they’re not.”
Mr Salmond has claimed she repeatedly gave an “untrue” picture to the parliament, and so broke the Scottish Ministerial code, a potential resignation offence.
Ms Sturgeon rejects the accusation, whiich is now being checked by the independent adviser of the ministerial code, former Irish prosecutor James Hamilton.
Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said: “The First Minister continues to duck and dive over the Alex Salmond scandal.
“People are entitled to know how this public money was spent and the First Minister’s claims to not know are astonishing.
“She likes giving the impression of being good on detail, until it becomes convenient to forget and usually when it involves her former friend and mentor.
“When witnesses come before any Holyrood committee all that is expected is honesty and transparency. Coaching them in advance is unnecessary.
“Many have had to later correct their evidence and if that’s any indication of the worth of the expensive preparation paid for by taxpayers, the SNP should ask for a refund.
“The significant amount of time spent preparing by these civil servants is also of concern. Their focus should have been on fighting the pandemic.”
Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton added: “To learn that the government has spent more than £50,000 of taxpayers’ money prepping civil servants to come before our committee, when their performance has been patchy at best considering the collective memory loss that seems to have afflicted the civil service, is astonishing.”
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A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “It is completely untrue that Scottish Government witnesses have been coached. In line with the Scottish Government’s commitment to cooperate fully with the committee, civil servants have prepared for and provided over 21 hours of oral evidence on complex and historical events, in line with the data protection, confidentiality and legal restrictions that apply.
“Scottish Government witnesses are providing evidence to the best of their knowledge on behalf of ministers. However they are also giving their own recollections, under oath, of complex events that took place some time ago.
“Where further information or clarification has been required, we have followed up quickly in writing, including to correct inaccurate assertions by some committee members.”