Scottish Government handling of inquiry and judicial review ‘seriously flawed’, committee concludes
The Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond and the subsequent judicial review was “seriously flawed”, a committee inquiry has concluded.
However, the committee was split on the question of whether the First Minister gave inaccurate evidence to the committee and broke the ministerial code, with Tory, Labour, Lib Dem and independent members concluding she did, while the SNP members disputed this conclusion.
The committee had been looking into the Scottish Government's handling of harassment complaints against former first minister Alex Salmond.
Regarding the judicial review, the committee concluded that the Scottish Government caused an avoidable situation.
It also states that the “catastrophic failure” to disclose documents that led to the high level of cost being awarded.
It found that the complaints procedure was developed too fast in the wake of the ‘MeToo' movement and among its recommendations should introduce an independent support service for complainers and an independent system for investigating complaints.
The multiple roles of the Permanent Secretary should have been seen as a risk, it says.
However, the committee was split over the reliability of evidence given to the committee by First Minster Nicola Sturgeon and whether she broke the ministerial code.
Among the disputed areas in the final report, which was agreed by a majority of committee members, was whether it was credible that Sturgeon had no knowledge of any concerns about inappropriate behaviour by Salmond before she heard about the official complaints against him.
The four SNP members of the committee, Alasdair Allan, Linda Fabiani, Stuart McMillan and Maureen Watt, dispute this conclusion on the basis that is makes no distinction between bullying behaviour and sexual harassment and the only evidence they heard was that Salmond could be difficult to work with.
The final report also concludes that Sturgeon did give Salmond the impression she would intervene on his behalf and gave inaccurate evidence about that to parliament, which would be a breach of the ministerial code.
It also says she should have made the Permanent Secretary aware of the meeting she had with Salmond on 2 April 2018 about the complaints “at the earliest opportunity” afterwards.
The four SNP members also dispute these conclusions.
There have been recriminations on both sides about the politicisation of the process and leaks of the report’s conclusions prior to publication.
Committee convener Linda Fabiani said: “Throughout this inquiry there has been speculation and rumour around the work of our committee.
“I have always been clear that at the heart of this inquiry are two women who made complaints of sexual harassment.
“These women were badly let down by the Scottish Government, but they have also been let down by some members of our committee.
“I am truly dismayed by the hurt some of the committee leaks will have caused them. I apologise to them unreservedly.
“This is not who we should be as a committee of this parliament.
“Our inquiry was a chance to reflect on what went wrong with the Scottish Government processes and ensure that the failings these women experienced never happen again.
“There are undoubtedly some extremely serious findings in our report and it was clear to the committee that there were serious flaws made in the Government’s application of its own process.
“The Government must address these to ensure anyone who experiences sexual harassment has the confidence to come forward.”
In a statement, the four SNP committee members said: “We have substantial concerns that unfortunate behaviour by some committee members will have a chilling and counterproductive effect on our primary objective of protecting the best interests of women.
“We fear conduct over several months of some members - their skewed focus, overt politicisation and lamentable disregard for complainers – will dissuade women from coming forward in the future. That is a matter of the deepest regret.”
However, the Scottish Conservative spokesman on the committee, Murdo Fraser, said: “The committee verdict is in – Nicola Sturgeon misled parliament and the public.
“If she ploughs on regardless, as she did against the advice of lawyers in the doomed Alex Salmond judicial review case, the First Minister will leave the country scarred by the most bitter divisions.
“It seems clear that Nicola Sturgeon will refuse to abide by the principle of democratic accountability for her government’s monumental mistakes.
“The committee report indicates that even if the First Minister won’t be held accountable, numerous senior government officials should consider their position.
“It is time for someone to accept responsibility for letting women down, wasting more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money, and the abundance of false and misleading statements from senior government figures.”
Scottish Labour deputy leader and committee member Jackie Baillie said: “This report makes for sober reading.
“Never in my 22 years in parliament have I witnessed a report such as this, which details the catastrophic failings of the Scottish Government on a matter of the utmost seriousness and sensitivity.
“Despite the obstruction of the Scottish Government, the committee has managed to get beyond its veil of secrecy.
“We must never forget that at the heart of this matter are women who were failed by the Scottish Government. Three years on, nobody has yet taken responsibility for this failure.
“The thread that runs through the rushed development of the harassment policy and the flawed implementation of the handling of complaints is the Permanent Secretary.
“She was involved in every aspect of the procedure and must bear much of the responsibility.
“The Scottish Government still does not have a robust and functioning harassment complaints procedure and women continue to be let down.
“There is an urgent need for reform to ensure that the complaints procedure is fit for purpose and lawful.”
“The Scottish Government’s determination to plough on defending a judicial review, when the prospects of success were minimal, was irresponsible and cost the public more than £500,000.
“We also believe the First Minister has misled the committee about whether she would intervene, following her meeting with Alex Salmond on April 2, an act which is tantamount to misleading the parliament.
“The Hamilton report may have exonerated the First Minister of breaching the ministerial code, but the catastrophic and myriad failings this committee inquiry has revealed have called into question her judgement.”