Saturday, 23 March 2013

EU said, she said

There's a new development in the row that refuses to die -  the argument over the SNP government and its protean legal advice on the status of an independent Scotland in Europe.
Nicola Sturgeon was supposed to have cleared up all the confusion in October, when she told MSPs that, despite the FM appearing to suggest otherwise, there was no such advice after all.
But fear not, she had now commissioned "specific advice" from the law officers.
Except the law officers didn't get the official paperwork for another two months.
The opposition parties are now asking how Sturgeon could have commissioned "specific advice" without posing specific questions, and think an apology and correction to the Official Report may be in order.

Here's a longer version of the story in today's Herald.

Tom Gordon

ALEX Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are facing new claims they misled parliament over government legal advice on the status of an independent Scotland in Europe.

Both the First Minister and his deputy told MSPs in late October that ministers had commissioned “specific advice” from their law officers on the topic, ending months of speculation about whether such advice existed.

However the government has now confirmed that it was not until two months later, on December 18, that ministers actually submitted the formal request to their top legal advisers.

The two months was needed simply to draw up the questions to the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General to answer, suggesting significant gaps in ministers' knowledge on the issue.

Opposition parties are now querying how Sturgeon and Salmond could claim to have commissioned “specific advice” before any specific questions were posed, and have urged them to amend their statements in Holyrood’s official record.
Questions over the status and entry terms of an independent Scotland in the EU have bedevilled the SNP’s referendum campaign, with ministers forced into a series of retreats.
After insisting for years that entry would be “automatic” and Scotland would inherit the UK’s opt-outs on the euro and free travel, ministers now admit there would be detailed negotiations, including on the opt-outs and the UK rebate.
Many of the SNP’s problems track back to March last year, when Salmond was asked in a BBC interview if he had sought specific legal advice on EU membership from his law officers.
He said: “We have, yes, in terms of the debate.” 
But on October 23, Sturgeon told parliament that in fact no such advice had been sought.
However in light of the Edinburgh Agreement signed on October 15, in which the UK and Scottish governments agreed the referendum process, she said that situation had changed.
“I can confirm that the Scottish Government has now commissioned specific legal advice from our law officers on the position of Scotland within the European Union if independence is achieved through [the Edinburgh Agreement],” she said.
Two days later, Salmond also told MSPs: “We have sought the advice of the law officers”.
L: Nicola Sturgeon on 23-10-12, and R: Alex Salmond on 25-10-12
But after a Freedom of Information request in November to see the formal, lengthy request submitted to the law officers on such occasions, the government took four months to admit that it didn’t exist until December 18.
It was only then that junior lawyers within the government actually finalised the questions and passed them to the law officers.
Tory chief whip John Lamont MSP said: “Alex Salmond has already been caught red handed in revealing what legal advice the Scottish Government has on an independent Scotland’s position within the EU. Now, it seems his deputy has been less than straight on the same issue.
“Ms Sturgeon now has to think carefully on whether she misled Parliament, and if the official record should be changed accordingly.”

No problems here
Labour MSP Patricia Ferguson said: “Both the First Minister and his deputy clearly stated that legal advice had been commissioned and they need to urgently clarify the situation or face the accusation they misled parliament yet again.”
The Scottish Government said the Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland, had consented to Sturgeon’s form of words in parliament on October 23.
A spokesman said: “The Deputy First Minister commissioned specific legal advice on 23 October, which was accepted by the Lord Advocate and he gave permission for her to advise parliament that such legal advice had been commissioned. It is part of the normal process that Scottish Government lawyers then prepare a detailed submission.”

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