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Crown does not base decisions on politics, insists Yousaf

Scotland’s First Minister has defended the country’s prosecution service after a reported delay in clearing a search warrant for Nicola Sturgeon’s home.

The Scottish Sun said on Monday that a request to search the home shared by the former first minister and her husband, former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, along with the party’s Edinburgh headquarters was made on March 20.

It took two weeks for the warrant to be approved and sent to a sheriff, the newspaper reported, and it was executed on April 5 – the week after the conclusion of the SNP leadership race won by Humza Yousaf.

Suggestions have been made that the delay aimed to ensure Mr Yousaf’s campaign for the top job – in which he was seen as the closest candidate to Ms Sturgeon – was not damaged, but both he and the Crown Office have denied the claims.

Police outside Sturgeon/Murrell house
The home of Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell was searched by police in April (PA)

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday, Mr Yousaf said: “I think the decision of the Lord Advocate, or in this case the Crown more generally, would be not to make decisions, I don’t think, based on election contests or politics.

“They make decisions based on what is appropriate to the Crown, so really what you’re asking me to do is to make an inference about a process that has nothing to do with me, I have no involvement in it.”

The Lord Advocate and Solicitor General – who are appointed by Government – would recuse themselves in any investigation relating to a politician, the First Minister said.

Asked specifically about the delay, Mr Yousaf said: “I don’t believe there will be any particular reason out of the ordinary that it would take that time.

“I suppose that would be a question for the Crown, not questions for Government or ministers or the First Minister – we would never dream of interfering, neither in a live police investigation, but certainly not in a search warrant.”

Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell
Peter Murrell was arrested in the inquiry into the SNP’s finances and released without charge, pending further investigation (Andrew Milligan/PA)

A spokesman for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) said on Tuesday: “In all matters, Scotland’s prosecutors act independently of political pressure or interference.

“It is standard that any case regarding politicians is dealt with by prosecutors without the involvement of the Lord Advocate or Solicitor General.

“COPFS understand the interest in this case but to protect the fair administration of justice we urge restraint in public comment.”

The probe into the SNP’s finances – which stems from how more than £600,000 raised from members for an independence campaign was spent – has resulted in two arrests, that of Mr Murrell and then party treasurer Colin Beattie.

Both men were released without charge pending further investigation.

Despite the probe, Mr Yousaf said his party can be trusted with people’s money, adding it will “definitely” have the required funds to fight a general election campaign.

Meanwhile, the First Minister said the party’s new auditors are “confident” they can file the Westminster group’s accounts on time.

If the May 31 deadline is missed, the group could miss out on £1.2 million of Short money – public funds given to opposition parties to support their parliamentary work.

Mr Yousaf said: “We had a conversation with (the auditors) as a party… and certainly the last conversation we had with the auditors, they were confident in meeting that deadline.”

The party struggled for six months to appoint new accountants after the departure of Johnston Carmichael in October, a fact only provided to Mr Yousaf when he became party leader, with AMS Accountants Group hired earlier this month.

A spokesperson for the Lord Advocate said she was “not involved in the consideration of the search warrants in Operation Branchform and was not made aware that individuals had been arrested until after the event”.

The spokesperson added: “The Lord Advocate, Dorothy Bain KC, is not politically affiliated to the SNP administration and was appointed with the unanimous approval of the Scottish parliament.

“In a distinguished legal career she has advised and represented clients across a broad range of issues, and she has done so with unfailing integrity and professionalism.

“To suggest otherwise is an unacceptable slur on the office of Lord Advocate, on Dorothy Bain KC, and on the public prosecutors of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service who share her dedication to upholding the rule of law.”