In context: Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints
Around 18 months after it was first announced, a Scottish Parliament committee tasked with figuring out what went wrong with the Scottish Government’s investigation into harassment complaints against former first minister Alex Salmond, has begun its inquiry.
It’s already generating headlines and plenty of buzz. After three evidence sessions and lots of letters back and forth, the public are beginning to learn details about people and processes that don’t usually receive such open airing.
The inquiry is guaranteed to remain at the forefront of political news in the coming months.
So, what’s it all about?
What’s the backstory?
The inquiry was announced in January 2019, but the issues it is looking into date back a few years.
In late 2017, the Scottish Government updated its “fairness at work” policy, in particular extending the complaints procedure to cover former ministers.
Shortly after, two complaints of sexual harassment were made against Salmond, dating back to his time as First Minister. This triggered an internal investigation which for months remained confidential, until news broke of it in August 2018 in a newspaper. And at the same time, Salmond announced he was taking the Scottish Government to court over the handling of the probe, which he said was “flawed”.
In January 2019, the Scottish Government admitted in court during a Judicial Review, that it had not followed the correct procedures, collapsing the case on the first day. Judge Lord Pentland subsequently said that the government’s internal probe had been “unlawful in respect that they were procedurally unfair” and had been “tainted with apparent bias”.
In the aftermath, the Scottish Government had to pay Salmond £512,250 in legal costs.
MSPs immediately called for an inquiry into the affair and work began to organise what would later become the committee.
But work was paused almost immediately as separate criminal charges were brought against Salmond.
Now that Salmond has been acquitted of those charges, the committee has convened.
So, what exactly is the committee trying to find out?
Put simply, the inquiry wants to know how a process could go so wrong and whether the complaints procedure is fit for purpose.
Its stated aim is to “consider and report on the actions of the First Minister, Scottish Government officials and special advisers in dealing with complaints about Alex Salmond, former first minister”.
It’s said it will meet at least once a week.
The committee wants evidence from all sorts of people, from senior civil servants to political aids to the current and former first ministers themselves.
Does this have anything to do with Salmond’s criminal trial?
It’s tricky. Mostly, no. The committee has pledged it will not “revisit the criminal trial nor reinvestigate the substance of the complaints originally made to the Scottish Government”.
However, it’s impossible that the criminal trial and its consequences can be avoided entirely.
For a start, the committee must be careful not to find itself in contempt of court by inadvertently identifying any of the complainants from the trial.
But there’s also the fact that some pertinent information only came to light through the criminal trial.
For example, during the first evidence session, with Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, committee member and Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser asked whether Evans knew about claims that female civil servants were advised not to be alone with Salmond, a detail that came to light during the criminal trial.
Evans said she could not comment, and the committee chair moved to block the line of questioning. But Evans later wrote to the committee saying she would be happy to answer questions on the topic.
More broadly, outside the committee room there is contestation over the series of events leading to the initial complaints and their precise relation to the criminal trial, so the committee is under a lot of pressure to walk a fine line within its remit.
What about Nicola Sturgeon?
The First Minister is expected to appear before the committee soon. She has welcomed the line of questioning, saying she will feel “a sense of relief” at getting her side across.
Separately, Sturgeon herself is under investigation over whether she broke the ministerial code when meeting Salmond several times before the complaints against him became public.
What’s come out so far?
Here are some of the revelations from the inquiry so far:
- The complaints policy was not drawn up to “get” Alex Salmond, but investigating complaints was “the right thing to do”, according to Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans (18 August)
- But a draft of the policy was sent to two women, one of whom went on to complain about Salmond, it was confirmed (25 August)
- The decision to include former ministers in the policy was “the right thing to do,” the man who helped write it said (25 August)
- A former permanent secretary revealed that he “took actions” to investigate the behaviour of ministers “a number of times” (28 August)
- At least 30 complaints had been made against ministers in recent years, Dave Penman, the head of the civil servants’ union, said (1 September)