The Scottish government spent more than £50,000 on preparing civil servants to give evidence about the investigation into former First Minister Alex Salmond, it has emerged.
Top officials are reported to have spent hours preparing for the sessions, where they then suffered a ‘collective memory loss’ on key details.
This has led to accusations of ‘coaching’ answers so that they do not necessarily provide the information being asked for.
According to a Freedom of Information request filed by the Daily Telegraph, £54,378 was spent on the external assistance, although it is known who or what organisation was hired for the work.
Top officials including permanent secretary Leslie Evans (left, with Nicola Sturgeon) are reported to have spent hours preparing for the sessions into the Alex Salmond affair, where they then suffered a ‘collective memory loss’ on key details
The hearings’ committee is looking at how Mr Salmond successfully challenged the fairness and legality of a Scottish Government investigation into sexual harassment complaints against him in court.
In August 2018 it was leaked that the government had investigated two allegations of sexual misconduct against Alex Salmond while he was First Minister.
But five months later the Court of Session ruled that the government inquiry was unlawful because the lead investigator had had prior contact with the complainers.
Nicola Sturgeon then admitted that she had spoken to Mr Salmond about the government inquiry five times while it was ongoing and had failed to tell the Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, potentially in breach of the ministerial code.
In August 2019 Mr Salmond received £512,000 to cover his legal expenses for the judicial review of the case.
He was also cleared of 14 charges including attempted rape, 11 sexual assaults and two indecent assaults, against 10 women.
But in the special committee to investigate the government’s handling of the inquiry and Mrs Sturgeon’s actions, four of the six civil servants giving evidence have been forced to correct or clarify their evidence after their appearances.
In one case Barbara Allison, director of communications and ministerial support, spent two weekends and two working days to prepare for two evidence sessions, but faced criticism after she twice claimed under oath that she had not received a text message from Ms Evans, in which she wrote ‘battle maybe lost but not the war’, on the day Mr Salmond won his judicial review.
Nicola Sturgeon then admitted that she had spoken to Mr Salmond about the government inquiry five times while it was ongoing and had failed to tell the Ms Evans. Pictured: Nicola Sturgeon with Alex Salmond whilst on the General Election campaign trail in 2015
She wrote to the committee before her second appearance to say she had in fact received the text.
Mr Salmond’s allies believe the message is evidence of a conspiracy against him.
A source close to Mr Salmond told the publication: ‘The bill for the cover up continues to mount. It can hardly be said that they are getting value for money given the woeful performance of mandarins in front of the committee.’
James Hynd, the government’s head of cabinet, Ms Evans, and inquiry lead Judith Mackinnon also spent hours preparing to provide evidence, parts of which they later had to correct or clarify.
Alex Cole-Hamilton, the LibDem MSP and a committee member said he was ‘astonished’ that government had spent over £50,000 on prepping civil servants only for them to provide ‘patchy at best’ testimony ‘considering the collective memory loss’.
In one case Barbara Allison, director of communications and ministerial support, spent two weekends and two working days to prepare for two evidence sessions
He added: ‘It also raises the very real concern that these civil servants are being coached – that their answers are not natural, and once again, we might not be getting the full truth in our work.’
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.’
The First Minister is set to face a probe into whether she misled parliament over the Alex Salmond affair.
James Hamilton QC said he had received ‘written statements and other information’ in recent months and confirmed he would investigate.
In a letter sent to MSPs last night, he said he believes Miss Sturgeon’s ‘reporting of the relevant meetings to the parliament’ is within his remit and will be covered by his inquiry.
It comes after Mr Salmond accused Miss Sturgeon of sharing ‘false and manifestly untrue’ information with parliament in his submission to Mr Hamilton’s inquiry.
The probe is investigating whether Miss Sturgeon breached the ministerial code by failing to report meetings she held with Mr Salmond in which they discussed complaints against him.
Yesterday, Mrs Sturgeon said that Mr Hamilton had written to the Scottish Government insisting he would look into whether she had misled parliament.
She said: ‘The Deputy First Minister notified me this morning that Mr Hamilton has written to him confirming that in his view all of the allegations – incidentally all of the allegations I completely refute about breaching the ministerial code – are covered within the scope of his existing remit.
‘I said previously that I wanted to go wherever he thought it appropriate to go as I understand he has now confirmed that he feels there is no limitation on his ability to do that.
‘I hope… people will allow due processes to take their course rather than making their minds up before we even get to that.’
Miss Sturgeon maintains she did not mislead parliament.