Through the lens of the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, the public is being offered a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the highest echelons of government, and the view it’s getting is of a chaotic kaleidoscope of incompetence.
Civil servants, key to the botched complaints process against Alex Salmond, have, so far, refused to answer questions, joked about ‘looking for another job’, forgotten or deleted vital texts, declined to give evidence in person and repeatedly had to correct their evidence because they have misremembered, answered incorrectly or just been plain wrong.
And basically, these highly paid, gilt-edged-pensioned public servants have by now provided the committee and the public with such a whiff of evasion, obfuscation and arrogance that cumulatively, where once there may have been some confidence about motive and reason, there is now clear doubt.
The political ramifications for the current first minister of the so-called Salmond inquiry, set up to explore the ‘unlawful’ handling of harassment complaints made against the former first minister by her government, are already being duly rehearsed, but last week the focus was on the competency of the public servants that surround her.
And they were found wanting.
At the last count, four senior civil servants, including the Permanent Secretary and various director-level mandarins, have had to write to the committee to either correct their evidence – given under oath – or clarify what was concluded from their words.
These are some of the most highly paid public servants in Scotland; the brightest and the best. And yet they appear clueless about even what comes out of their mouths.
Ironically, one is the director of communications. Another, director of people advice. Yet neither appears to follow their own counsel.
Last week, Judith MacKinnon, who was the senior investigating officer into two complaints of sexual misconduct against Salmond, had to admit that what she had told the committee had been wrong.
On Tuesday, Labour MSP Jackie Baillie had asked MacKinnon: “Did you tell either of the complainants that you were going to be appointed the investigating officer before the appointment actually happened?”
MacKinnon replied: “I did not. I did not tell them that.”
But in fact, she had.
In a follow-up email to the inquiry, MacKinnon confirmed she told one of the women that she was “likely” to be the person who interviewed her if she proceeded to make a formal complaint.
It was MacKinnon’s previous contact with both women, before they formally submitted their complaints, which led to the Court of Session ruling that the Scottish Government’s investigation was “unlawful, unfair and tainted by apparent bias”. That neglect of such a basic principle of natural justice, detailed in paragraph 10 of the government’s own complaint procedures, cost the taxpayer upwards of £500,000 in Salmond’s legal costs alone.
She apologised to the committee “for inadvertently giving an incorrect answer” and asked for her evidence to be changed in the Official Report.
That was, incidentally, before anyone noticed that she had also told the committee the wrong date that she had attended a crucial hearing as part of the judicial review – managing to be out by a full year, which, given the necessity for attention to detail in these matters, is, at the least, troubling.
A P.S. is no doubt on the way.
Meanwhile, former HR director at the Scottish Government Barbara Allison, who previously flatly denied to MSPs she had been sent a text message while on holiday in the Maldives from her boss, the Permanent Secretary, Leslie Evans, on the day that the government conceded the judicial review to Salmond, had to admit that was untrue.
Indeed, having retrieved her own text messages from the Crown Office, which had them as the result of the criminal trial brought against Salmond, her memory remained murky but her credibility more so.
Evans had texted Allison and said: “Thanks Barbara – battle maybe [sic] lost but not the war. Hope you are having lovely & well-deserved break. L.”
Allison replied: “Thanks Leslie. It is lovely here. My mind and thoughts are with you all there tho. Best wishes. Bx”
Setting aside the question of what was the ‘battle’ and what was the ‘war’, and whether it is credible to believe that a senior civil servant inextricably linked with the Scottish Government’s legal battle with Salmond would forget that she and her boss had engaged in such bants, there remains a question mark about the messages she says she deleted that were part of the same conversation, and what they may or may not reveal.
Allison told the committee she was sorry for her previous “unintended inaccuracy”.
It seems there’s a pattern here.
But then perhaps there is just a culture of selective amnesia that comes from the top, given the Permanent Secretary was the first to have to apologise to the committee for misleading them when she said that one of Nicola Sturgeon’s closest aides had not been involved in the Scottish Government’s response to the judicial review when, in fact, she had.
The inquiry continues and despite previous claims that there was nothing to hide, this is starting to look more and more like a government involved in a cover-up. Salmond’s supporters have always believed in a conspiracy, only given succour by those text exchanges and references to war. My questions would be less about the semantics of what was meant by the ‘battle’ or the ‘war’ and more about why the Permanent Secretary was busy composing text messages on a day that it might have been more appropriate to be penning her P45.