JOHN Swinney has been accused of “ham-fisted political interference” after he delayed the Holyrood committee probing the Alex Salmond row from questioning two civil servants.

The deputy first minister said the Government could not allow Gillian Russell and Judith Mackinnon to appear in front of MSPs on Tuesday as it could risk identifying the women who complained about the ex-SNP leader. 

In a letter to the committee convener, Linda Fabiani, Swinney said the officials wouldn’t be able to appear until the Government had finalised a timeline, and prepared supporting documents. 

He wrote: “As the committee is aware, the Scottish Government is undergoing a process of seeking agreement from the former First Minister’s representatives, Levy & McRae, to the release of documents relating to those issues. 

“That process was due to be completed on Friday 20 November, but we now understand that more time will be needed for them to complete their review of the documents. In these circumstances the government will not be in a position, before 24 November, to finalise the timeline and statement and complete relevant GDPR notifications.

“Without the timeline and statement to accompany documents, there is a serious risk that the Scottish Government would, in providing our staff to give evidence to the committee, inadvertently breach either the undertaking or the court order preventing jigsaw identification of the complainers.”

He said ministers would know by November 24, if the documents could be available by December 1.

A furious Fabiani told Swinney that it was “unacceptable” to prevent MSPs from questioning civil servants “because the Scottish Government has not produced a timeline and statement to accompany documentation.”

The Holyrood committee is examining how the Scottish Government's bungled the investigation into sexual harassment complaints made against Salmond.

The former First Minister had the probe set aside in a judicial review, with ministers told they had acted unlawfully. He was awarded expenses of more than £500,000.

Fabiani told Swinney "As you are aware, the committee originally asked for the documentation relating to the complaints handling phase of its inquiry to be submitted by mid-July and this deadline was subsequently extended until 31 August.

"You indicated at that time that you would not be able to release this documentation as an objection had been received and you subsequently informed us that you were considering taking the matter to court.

"The committee confirmed in its letter of 12 October 2020 and repeated in its letter of 6 November that it was not seeking, nor did it require the Government to seek, documents the court cannot release without a court order and it confirmed that it wished to receive from the Scottish Government as a soon as possible, a timeline or written submission giving information on the process undertaken by the Scottish Government in investigating the complaints."

She added: ”While the committee appreciates that no witness should be put in a position where they might inadvertently breach a court undertaking or court order, it is the Scottish Government which has put its own employees in this position.

“I have previously made clear my, and the committee’s frustration at the continual delays and obfuscation we seem to be facing and your correspondence has only added to that frustration.”

Scottish Tory MSP, Murdo Fraser, who sits on the committee said Swinney’s refusal was “yet further confirmation that the SNP Government are doing everything they can to shut down this inquiry.”

He added: “They continue to block the vital work of this committee at every turn and are evading any sort of scrutiny.

“The public deserve to know why £500,000 of their money was wasted but the idea of being transparent is completely non-existent at the heart of this SNP Government.”

Scottish Labour deputy leader and committee member Jackie Baillie agreed. “This is nothing short of an outrage,” she said.

“This ham-fisted political interference into the work of this Committee is simply unacceptable.

“The secrecy and obfuscation of the Scottish Government knows no bounds. The worst of this latest episode is that John Swinney is blaming the lack of written evidence for the non-appearance of these witnesses, when he is the one that is withholding the evidence. You really couldn’t make it up.

“The First Minister’s commitment to allow the committee access to all documents and personnel it may need was clearly nothing more than a bad joke.

“The Committee must resist this political interference and redouble its efforts to uncovering the truth at the heart of this sordid affair.”