Yesterday Nicola Sturgeon gave evidence to the committee of the Scottish Parliament examining her involvement in the inquiry into allegations against Alex Salmond. Part of that examination involved questioning her failure to report certain meetings she and other members of the Scottish government held to the civil service. This implied accountability to the civil service on the part of elected politicians surprised me. The stories (one example of which can be found here) imply that any meeting relating to "government business" (presumably as opposed to strictly party-political meetings) need reporting:

It also matters because if 2 April was government business - ie to discuss a government investigation - why did Ms Sturgeon not report it to senior civil servants?

Ms Sturgeon says she didn't want to compromise the investigation being carried out by the government, but others believe there are still holes in the story.

Why, opposition sources ask, did Ms Sturgeon not report her further private meetings with Mr Salmond when it was clear he was asking her about government business?

What precisely is this apparent obligation? What details need be reported, and to whom? And finally, where does that obligation derive (I.E. is it legislation, the ministerial code, convention etc)

  • It's not that elected politicians are accountable to the civil service; it's that government decisions, and the basis for making them, need to be recorded and the civil servants do that recording, as set out in CDJB's answer.
    – Graham Nye
    Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 1:55

1 Answer 1


The obligation stems from the ministerial code. Section 4.22 of the Scottish Ministerial Code: 2018 edition states:

Ministers meet many people and organisations and consider a wide range of views as part of the formulation of Government policy. Meetings on official business should normally be arranged through Private Offices. A private secretary or official should be present for all discussions relating to Government business. Private Offices should arrange for the basic facts of formal meetings between Ministers and outside interest groups to be recorded, setting out the reasons for the meeting, the names of those attending and the interests represented. A monthly list of engagements carried out by all Ministers is published three months in arrears.

The next paragraph is also relevant, stating a Minister's obligation to report back to their Private Offices if such a meeting takes place unexpectedly.

If Ministers meet external organisations or individuals and find themselves discussing official business without an official present – for example at a party conference, social occasion or on holiday – any significant content (such as substantive issues relating to Government decisions or contracts) should be passed back to their Private Offices as soon as possible after the event, who should arrange for the basic facts of such meetings to be recorded in accordance with paragraph 4.22 above.

However, it is section 4.22 specifically that the Scottish Conservatives, among others, have accused Nicola Sturgeon of breaking. Their dossier entitled The Sturgeon-Salmond scandal, which accuses Sturgeon of breaching the ministerial code 38 times, states under the heading "Did Sturgeon break Section 4.22":

Sturgeon held five discussions with Salmond throughout the summer of 2018.

There are no records of what was said at those meetings.

Both Salmond and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell have said the meetings were government, not party business.

Sturgeon spoke to her chief civil servant about the Salmond meetings in early June.

But six weeks later, she met Salmond again, without an official present or any record taken.

In total, she may have breached Section 4.22 up to six times by meeting Salmond and his former chief of staff on government business, and concealing the meetings from government officials.

It should be noted that the ministerial code is not legally binding - the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. Chapter 1 of the code, and in particular, section 1.6, makes it clear that Ministers are ultimately accountable to the First Minister, who is "the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and of the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards".

  • 1
    the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. ...arrrrr? Good answer, thank you.
    – Dan Scally
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 15:26
  • should, not must. See rfc2119. Thanks. Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 15:52
  • "the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules" Officially perhaps but if a minister breaks the code opposition politicians can successfully call for their resignation (if their own party leader hasn't already thrown them out) so in practice they are rather firmer than mere guidelines.
    – Graham Nye
    Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 2:08
  • 1
    @GrahamNye not very firm in the UK any more.
    – Jontia
    Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 9:24
  • @Jontia Hence "can" rather than "will" and "if".
    – Graham Nye
    Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 11:41

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