Former Permanent Secretary 'took actions' over concerns about behaviour of ministers
A former Scottish Government Permanent Secretary has said that he “took actions” on concerns raised about the behavior of ministers in “a number of settings”.
Sir Peter Housden, who held the senior civil servant position between 2010 and 2015, told the Holyrood committee investigating the handling of harassment claims against former First Minister Alex Salmond that he had handled informal concerns raised against ministers “without recourse to formal procedures” but said that confidentiality rules prevented him from giving any more details of those at this time.
In a written submission to the committee he went on to say that in situations where a formal complaint was brought against a Minister, and/or there was presenting evidence that an egregious act had been committed, formal procedures would be followed.
Housden’s letter to the committee was published after his successor to the role, current Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, appeared as the first witness before the committee.
The committee was set up to investigate what went wrong with a Scottish Government probe into the conduct of Salmond during his time as First Minister.
Salmond successfully sued the Scottish Government over the probe, which the Court of Session found to be “procedurally unfair” and “tainted with apparent bias” after the government was found to have breached its own guidelines by appointing an investigating officer who had “prior involvement” with the case.
The Scottish Government had to pay over £500,000 in costs to Salmond as a result.
Housden, in his evidence to the committee, spoke of a “structural imbalance of power and asymmetry” in what he described as “matters of power and accountability” surrounding civil servants and ministers.
He was asked to describe the formal and informal procedures for civil service staff to raise concerns about the behaviour of ministers during his time as permanent secretary, which covered Salmond’s final years as First Minister.
In his evidence, he discussed both the civil service and ministerial codes as well as the Scottish Government’s Fairness at Work policies.
He believed that all “reasonable steps” were taken under his tenure as Permanent Secretary to ensure that the culture and procedures within the civil service were appropriate and met a duty of care to staff.
He pointed to the findings of an annual survey of staff that suggested fewer civil servants in Scotland complained of bullying and discrimination compared to UK civil service as a whole.
Housden went on to discuss the culture within the senior civil service, which he says is “the critical factor” over which ministers have “significant influence”.
But Housden went on to say that “ministers are of course individuals and within any administration there will be a variety of personalities involved and different ways of handling relations with staff”.
He added: “ Where there were individual ministers whose behaviour was a cause for concern, the expectation was that the Permanent Secretary would manage these situations without recourse to formal procedures.
“Confidentiality requirements preclude me from sharing the particulars my experience but I took actions on these lines in a number of settings.
“The limiting cases were, of course, situations where a formal complaint was brought against a Minister, and/or there was presenting evidence that an egregious act had been committed. In these cases, formal procedures would be followed.”
Asked how he would see things be improved, Housden said: “We are dealing here with matters of power and accountability. Authority is vested in the government of the day. Acting within the law, it is the role of civil servants to implement their programme.
“Ministers in Scotland are accountable to the First Minister and Parliament, not to civil servants. There is thus a structural imbalance of power and asymmetry in accountability.”
Housden suggested the creation of an independent parliamentary standards commissioner as one possible formal means of strengthening “external accountability for ministers”.
He went on: “Culture will remain the critical factor, however. The public climate is much more sensitised to these issues now and rightly so. There is a much stronger moral and reputational imperative on government to ensure appropriate standards of conduct are maintained.”
In conclusion, Housden said the key is “political will, in particular the example set by senior politicians in their own conduct and in handling issues of concern will be the single most powerful influence in securing a safe, respectful and productive workplace”.
Responding to Housden’s letter, Scottish Conservative spokesperson on the Salmond inquiry, Murdo Fraser MSP, said: “It is an extraordinary admission that problematic behaviour from ministers would be dealt with informally, and that these procedures took place ‘in a number of settings.’
“We have no idea how many times these informal discussions took place, who with, or most importantly, how serious the complaints were.
“But it’s clear that Nicola Sturgeon’s position that she knew nothing about any allegations of inappropriate behaviour is becoming flimsier with every piece of evidence that comes out.
“The First Minister cannot claim to have been in the dark, like the rest of us, when a number of allegations and complaints were taking place along the corridors of the SNP government.
“The inquiry must hear from Nicola Sturgeon about what she knew and when she knew it.”