ALEX Salmond was last night accused of attempting to rig the inquiry into his conduct after one of his investigators said that he has been “stood down” by Scotland’s most senior civil servant.
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, a former Lord Advocate who is a member of the panel that advises the Scottish Government on the conduct of ministers, said he was called by the Scottish Permanent Secretary Sir Peter Housden and told that he would not be examining the complaint against Salmond.
Last week, Salmond referred himself to the independent panel of advisers after Labour called for an investigation into whether he had breached the ministerial code and suggested he could be guilty of an abuse of power over the row about an independent Scotland’s membership of the European Union.
Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, Fraser, a Tory peer, raised questions about Salmond’s self-referral, saying his view was that the complaint made against the SNP leader was too broad to be dealt with under the terms of the ministerial code.
The First Minister referred himself to the panel after it emerged that the Scottish Government had not sought specific legal advice over whether an independent Scotland could join the EU despite going to the Court of Session to prevent the release of any information.
His move followed the publication of a letter from the Labour MEP Catherine Stihler in which she raised concerns about the First Minister’s behaviour after seeing YouTube footage of an interview conducted by Andrew Neil in March, during which the First Minister appeared to suggest that the government did have legal advice from law officers.
Stihler’s letter called for an investigation into whether the ministerial code had been broken and questioned whether the government’s legal action was an abuse of power.
Salmond’s attempts to draw a line under the controversy by referring himself to the panel has not satisfied Stihler, who described his move as a “smokescreen”.
Last night, in an intervention that will raise yet more questions about the First Minister’s conduct, Fraser said that he agreed with Stihler’s assertion that her complaint fell beyond the ministerial code.
“I agree with the MEP when she argues that it is about an abuse of power. Whereas, my remit had always been the narrower one of ‘was there a breach of the ministerial code?’ I agree with her. It does seem to me to go wider than that [the code],” Fraser said.
Fraser said he had been called by Housden on Thursday to be “stood down” from the inquiry into Salmond.
The decision sparked an angry response from Labour. The party’s justice spokesman Lewis MacDonald said: “It is not acceptable for the First Minister to attempt to manipulate this panel and its remit. It would appear Alex Salmond is so desperate to make this crisis go away he is trying to rig the process.”
When Salmond announced to parliament on Thursday afternoon that he was referring himself to the panel for investigation, the First Minister said he was referring Sthiler’s complaint to the “independent panel of advisers on the ministerial code”. Salmond also announced that Housden had advised him to invite Sir David Bell, vice chancellor of Reading University, to “join” and lead the panel.
Bell’s inclusion, Salmond said, was because Fraser and the other panel member, Dame Elish Angiolini, were former Lord Advocates and the complaint “touches on an area of the code that relates to the law officers’ prerogative in terms of the existence and content of legal advice”.
Bell’s membership of the panel led to raised eyebrows given that he is a former permanent secretary in the UK Government’s education department and a former colleague of Housden, who has faced repeated accusations of politicising the Scottish civil service.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Given that one of the key issues is the defence of the Law Officers’ prerogatives, it would not be appropriate for any former Law Officer to investigate this complaint given that it would be assumed that they would be unlikely to conclude that this could possibly be a breach of the code. For that reason, Sir David Bell, a respected non-legal figure, has agreed to take forward the independent investigation.”