Nicola Sturgeon will be asked about an undeclared meeting with her top civil servant after it emerged notes of their conversation may have been destroyed.
Scotland’s first minister held at least one meeting with her government’s permanent secretary four months before she says she knew of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond, her predecessor.
The meeting in November 2017 wasn’t included in a timeline of events the Scottish government gave to Holyrood’s harassment committee, despite MSPs asking for details of all meetings.
Now Sky News has seen statements, given under oath by the permanent secretary Leslie Evans, stating that she may have made a note of a meeting with the first minister but wouldn’t have kept it because: “I destroy all my notebooks.”
An opposition MSP has told Sky News she will query this when the first minister gives evidence to the Holyrood committee investigating the government’s mishandling of its 2018 investigation into harassment complaints against Mr Salmond.
Labour’s Jackie Baillie MSP described it as “deeply disturbing and quite unbelievable”.
However, a Scottish government spokesperson has told Sky News that not all government business is recorded or minuted.
Ms Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament that she first learned of harassment complaints against Mr Salmond on 2 April 2018.
Questions surrounding destroyed notebooks go back four months before that.
By that time, two female civil servants had already contacted Scottish government officials regarding complaints against Mr Salmond.
Ms Sturgeon and Ms Evans met on 29 November 2017.
It wasn’t included in a timeline given by the government to the Scottish parliament’s harassment committee, which is looking into the government’s mishandling of an internal investigation into complaints against Mr Salmond.
Details of the meeting are mentioned, however, in documents related to Mr Salmond’s legal challenge against the investigation, which he won.
The “pleadings” from his judicial review refer to Ms Sturgeon and Ms Evans as “the interested party” and “the first respondent”.
It says that they discussed “development of the proposed procedure,” which was being drawn up to deal with complaints of harassment.
Their meeting on 29 November 2017 took place after two women had contacted Scottish government officials about Mr Salmond, one three weeks previously and the other a week before.
At that time, a draft of the complaints procedure suggested that Ms Sturgeon should be told about complaints against former ministers, although that was changed later.
Sky News has seen previously unpublished documents related to Mr Salmond’s judicial review process, in which Ms Evans was questioned under oath.
They are from a so-called “Commission and Diligence” hearing that took place on 21 December 2018, for the purpose of obtaining relevant government documents.
Ms Evans was asked by legal counsel for Mr Salmond about records of meetings she had with the first minister in relation to the harassment procedure generally, or the specific complaints against Mr Salmond between 21 November and 12 December 2017.
The following exchange took place:
Counsel: “Are you able to say whether, definitively, whether there are any documents of any sort which fall within the scope of that?”
Ms Evans: “About contact between myself and the first minister?”
Counsel: “Yes, yes.”
Ms Evans: “No, I am not aware of that. There is contact between myself and the first minister on the procedure but I do not keep notes.
“I do not keep documents on my meetings with the first minister which although I take notes, I don’t retain them. I don’t retain my notebooks.”
Counsel: “Does that mean that it’s possible that there would have been, at some stage, a note taken by you which falls within that Call (request for documents) but which no longer exists?”
Ms Evans: “Yes.”
Counsel: “And why would you not have retained that, Ms Evans?”
Ms Evans: “I don’t keep any of my notes with, from my notebooks. I destroy all my notebooks.”
Counsel: “I know that this is an entirely hypothetical because we don’t know whether or not any such note was taken but if we hypothesise, for example, that there was a meeting between you and the first minister on 22 November (it was subsequently learned a meeting took place on 29 November 2017), that you did take a note and that it did contain information within the scope of the call, when you have got rid of the notebook relative to the date of the meeting?”
Ms Evans: “I destroy all my notebooks after they’re full. They are aide memoires to me, and actions and decisions, commissions arising are translated in the official records, my notes are not the official record.”
Whilst the lack of a record doesn’t prove or disprove anything about the content of meeting(s), some opposition politicians have expressed suspicion.
Ms Baillie, a member of Holyrood’s harassment committee who will question the first minister when she gives evidence on Wednesday, told Sky News: “I think we need a full explanation.
“Already, I’m concerned that the government didn’t see fit to tell us, as part of the timeline, about the first minister meeting her permanent secretary to discuss development of the harassment policy.
“It’s clearly germane to the work we do which is to look into the work they were doing.
“I want to know, from the first minister, what was discussed at the meeting on 29 November 2017, were notes taken of it and were those notes destroyed? It’s a question for the two people present at those discussions.”
“This is contrary to the practice of most civil servants that keep records of important meetings, particularly of meetings with ministers. It is deeply disturbing and quite unbelievable that she destroys these records immediately.
“Nicola Sturgeon said that she became aware of the complaints against Alex Salmond in early April, but here we have potentially vital notes of a meeting between her and the permanent secretary destroyed months earlier.
“If Nicola Sturgeon became aware of the complaints at this time and the notes of the meeting were destroyed, then her entire story is based on falsehood.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “It’s extraordinary that Scotland’s chief civil servant would admit to destroying important government documents in a hurry.
“The destruction of evidence means we may never know what Nicola Sturgeon knew and when.
“This revelation exposes the murky, secretive approach that has run rampant throughout the SNP government.”
A Scottish government spokesperson said: “In the normal course of government business not all conversations and meetings are minuted.
“Officials may take notes and where decisions or commissions arise they are recorded for action or the official record – there were no such decisions or commissions in this case and there is therefore no record of this meeting.”
Ms Sturgeon is due to face questions from the Scottish parliament’s harassment committee on Wednesday.
It comes after Mr Salmond accused her of breaching the ministerial code several times in his evidence session last Friday.
She denies breaching the code.
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