Scottish Tories fail in bid to force probe into Covid WhatsApp messages

The Scottish Conservatives have failed in their bid to force the First Minister and his deputy to refer themselves to an inquiry into the delivery of WhatsApp messages to the UK's Covid-19 investigation.

The party tabled a motion in its own debate time on Wednesday which, if passed, would have seen the Scottish Parliament agree to impeach Humza Yousaf and Shona Robison for possibly breaching the ministerial code.

The proposal was voted down with 63 votes in favor, 53 against and one abstention.

Mr Yousaf and Ms Robison have come under fire in recent weeks after the Scottish Government was forced to release a timeline of its dealings with the inquiry, which showed it had been asked for messages in February as opposed to September, as previously reported .

Senior ministers accepted the government had interpreted the original request “too narrowly”.

If either is found to have knowingly misled Parliament, the ministerial code says they will be expected to resign.

Speaking in the debate on Wednesday, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross urged MSPs across the chamber to support the motion, saying it was not about party politics, but about truth in politics.

“What is said here does and should matter,” he said.

“That is why the question before us today must be above the usual partisan considerations.

“This is not a battle of ideas, this is not a debate about how best to govern our country, this is simply an examination of the facts and the evidence, what was said and whether there was a deliberate attempt to mislead.”

Mr Ross was warned by deputy presiding officer Liam McArthur after he accused senior ministers of the country of “deliberately misleading this Parliament”, with Mr McArthur saying he should “remove” such accusations in the Holyrood chamber.

However, Mr Ross said the statements “were not malicious language, they were the product of a concerted effort to confuse and obfuscate the timetable to make it appear as if the SNP government was not delaying finding evidence for the inquiry”.

Scottish Labor leader Anas Sarwar said the debate was about “holding the SNP government to account for its decisions and behavior during the most tragic event in living history”.

He told MSPs that people “deserve the truth” about how “life and death decisions” were made during the pandemic.

“The least Scots could have expected was that their government would make it as easy as possible to get the truth,” he said.

“But that clearly didn't happen.”

He claimed there had been “attempts to withhold vital evidence from the investigation”, with ministers “changing the excuse every time the stories broke”.

Mr Sarwar continued: “The true scale of the cover-up many fear is taking place is still unclear because this SNP government has repeatedly refused to answer some of the most basic questions.

“The Prime Minister has yet to tell Parliament about the 70 ministers and officials, how many have failed to comply with the ‘do not destroy' notice and how many have deleted messages. Still no answer.

“The First Minister has lost control of his government and in my view should be investigated for misleading this Parliament and trying to cover it up.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “This is a governing party that is afraid of the light. They fear the truths they hide.

“And we fear the judgment that would surely be issued by the people of Scotland if these truths ever came to light.”

But in her speech, Ms Robison said she “rejects” not only the suggestion but also the assumption that either she or Mr Yousaf knowingly misled Holyrood.

“I want to start by reiterating the First Minister's acknowledgment last week – that in retrospect we recognize that the Scottish Government interpreted previous requests for messages from the UK inquiry very narrowly,” he said.

“Like the First Minister last week, I want to apologize unreservedly to the families who have lost their lives to Covid for any distress our actions have caused them as a result of this interpretation.”

Ms Robison went on to pledge that the Scottish Government would “do everything we can” to help both the UK and Scotland's Covid investigations carry out their work “at pace”.

He added: “This is in the interests of all of us and we owe nothing less, not just to those who have lost their lives or lost loved ones during the pandemic, but to all those affected, including the many public sector workers who came together in this difficult time and whose work enabled our society to return to the normalcy we all enjoy.”

A Labor amendment to the motion, which was also defeated, sought to force the Scottish Government to set a timetable for handing over undrafted legal advice to the inquiries.

In a note to the inquiry last month, chief counsel Jamie Dawson KC said the Scottish Government had been asked to waive legal privilege in relation to advice given by legal officers during the pandemic in August, with the request to be “discussed on a number of subsequent occasions”, but “there has been no official response to date”.

Ms Robison said the Scottish Government was currently in talks with both inquiries to hand over privileged material.