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Alex Salmond branded 'bare-faced liar' over EU legal advice

Scottish Labour MSP Paul Martin refused to withdraw allegation made over EU legal advice.

First Minister Alex Salmond.

Scottish Labour MSP Paul Martin refused to retract his claim that First Minister Alex Salmond told "bare-faced lies" over whether or not his Government had taken legal advice on an indepenedent Scotland joining the European Union.

Following an announcement by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Tuesday in which she admitted the Government is only now seeking legal opinion on the matter, Scottish Labour MSP Paul Martin said her statement had revealed the First Minister to be a liar.

Opposition parties have been highly critical about the SNP's attempts to keep information surrounding the legal advice given to the government under wraps.

Ms Sturgeon made a statement to clarify the position at the Scottish Parliament just over a week after Prime Minister David Cameron visited Edinburgh to sign off a deal ensuring a legal and decisive referendum in 2014.

She said: "In light of the Edinburgh agreement, by which both governments have agreed the process for Scotland to achieve independence, 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 this process.

"The Scottish Government has previously cited opinions from a number of eminent legal authorities, past and present, in support of its view that an independent Scotland will continue in membership of the European Union but has not sought specific legal advice.

"However, as the Edinburgh agreement provides the exact context of the process of obtaining independence, we now have the basis on which specific legal advice can be sought."

Responding to Ms Sturgeon's statement, Scottish Labour MSP Paul Martin said: “It appears the First Minister is a liar and used taxpayers’ money to try to cover up his lies.

“When asked about whether he had sought legal advice on Scotland joining the EU he said he had. He even went to court to prevent that advice from being published and he told the Scottish Parliament that he couldn’t reveal it because the rules wouldn’t let him.

“Now Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that Alex Salmond never had any advice to keep secret in the first place. That means the Deputy First Minister has revealed the First Minister to be a liar.

“This government cannot be straight with the Scottish people. Alex Salmond has started the debate on Scotland’s future within the UK with barefaced lies that even embarrass his deputy.”

Making a point of order in the parliament on Tuesday evening Mr Salmond responded to the allegation.

The First Minister read out a full transcript of an interview he had given Andrew Neill on March 4 2012, which he said was the source of Mr Martin's insinuation.

Mr Salmond then read out a Labour Party press statement which paraphrased the interview, omitting some 27 words.

The press release said: "When asked by Andrew Neil on 4 March 2012, 'Have you sought advice from your own Scottish law officers on this [EU membership] matter?' In response, Alex Salmond said: 'We have, yes … You know I can’t release the legal advice of law officers, Andrew.'

The First Minister argued his comments across three separate questions had been deliberately omitted so Mr Martin could support his allegation. He said that he hoped, upon reflection, the Labour politician would see fit to withdraw his claim.

The MSP then addressed the chamber and said he would not withdraw his comments.

Speaking to STV after the debate, Mr Martin said: "The First Minister is in a muddle here, clearly, over different versions of the advice he has received.

"I think it is for the people of Scotland to look at all the evidence before them and to decide whether he is a bare-faced liar.

"I am making it clear that the First Minister is not telling the truth."

Tweeting afterwards, Mr Neill, who interviewed the First Minister in March on his Sunday Politics for the BBC said: "No confusion over what I was asking Alex Salmond: what official legal advice he'd been given re Scotland's EU status if it left the UK?"

Ms Sturgeon's announcement effectively ended a potentially expensive legal challenge against a ruling by Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew who ordered the Government to reveal whether advice was sought.

The Deputy First Minister said the views of those eminent authorities, which the Scottish Government has so far relied on, will continue to be "highly relevant".

She told parliament: "Given that my statement today answers the ruling of the Information Commissioner on the existence of legal advice, there is now no need for the Government to pursue an appeal against this ruling in this specific case and I have asked our lawyers to advise the court accordingly and to ask that the appeal be dismissed."

Tory leader Ruth Davidson turned on the Government after it was yet to seek legal advice on EU membership.

"We find out today, despite desperate claims of knowing the answer, despite thousands of pounds in taxpayers' money spent in courtrooms to keep information from the Scottish people, the SNP have never taken advice on a separate Scotland's place in the European Union.

"They don't know whether we would be spending pounds or euros. The Deputy First Minister doesn't know.

"Monetary policy, EU membership: when will she stop trying to hoodwink the public on the big issues. Scotland needs to know."

She demanded that the Government publishes the "actual advice" it receives so that "Scotland has the information it needs to make this historic decision".

Labour's Jackie Baillie demanded to know how much cash was spent pursuing the court case against the Information Commissioner.

"Can I ask how much taxpayers' money the Government has spent on a court case to hide information on legal advice on the European Union; legal advice which wasn't even commissioned, legal advice which doesn't exist."

Ms Sturgeon said expenses so far totalled £3960, although this is not "an absolutely final figure" and pledged to update parliament on the final cost as soon as it is available.

Meanwhile Labour MSP Richard Baker demanded to know how the Deputy First Minister could reveal the "existence or non-existence of legal advice" under the ministerial code, which normally precludes this.

Ms Sturgeon said she received specific permission from Scotland's top law officer, Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland on the matter.

"I have sought and received the specific permission of the Lord Advocate to share this information with Parliament today. That means I am giving Parliament this information entirely consistently with the ministerial code," she said.

Ms Sturgeon asked to make the statement at Holyrood on the first day back from recess.

It was the first available opportunity to update MSPs on the agreement struck between the British and Scottish governments on the staging of the referendum.

The deal paves the way for both parliaments to agree a technical section 30 order giving the Scottish Parliament power to legislate for the date of the referendum, whether to reduce the voting age to 16, the wording of the question, campaign finance rules and the conduct of the referendum.

The statement coincided with delayed publication of the results of the Scottish public consultation on the staging of the ballot.

The consultation ran from January 5 to May 11, leading to complaints that the deal in Edinburgh was made without full transparency.

Issues put to the public included the proposed timetable, whether there should be weekend voting, who should oversee the running of the referendum and what the spending limits should be.

Commenting as the revelation that the public consultation found that a majority of the public did not support a two-question referendum, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie MSP said: "Despite all of their best efforts to rig support for a two-question referendum in their favour, the SNP has finally admitted it did not even have the public backing it boasted about at every turn.

"The SNP government has wiped out its credibility in one fell swoop.

"The Scottish Liberal Democrats want to see an open and honest debate about Scotland’s future. It is gravely worrying that the SNP leadership has been so willing to mislead the public to suit its own narrow nationalist goals."

Mr Rennie also raised the European issue, telling Ms Sturgeon that he can "feel her embarrassment".

The Lib Dem recalled: "The First Minister said his White Paper would be consistent with the legal advice. She's had to tell us he hasn't got any, it was all imaginary."

The SNP insists that Scotland will automatically be accepted into the EU, while opponents say it would have to reapply and lose the UK's existing rights and opt-outs.

Full analysis of the Government's consultation is available online here.

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