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Scottish Government harassment procedure was not designed to ‘get’ Alex Salmond

Leslie Evans - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

Scottish Government harassment procedure was not designed to ‘get’ Alex Salmond

The Scottish Government’s harassment procedure was not intended to target Alex Salmond, permanent secretary Leslie Evans has told a Holyrood committee.

Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton asked Evans whether the procedure that was developed around any specific complaint that the Scottish Government had already received.

“Was it designed to get Alex Salmond?” he asked.

“No, absolutely not,” Evans replied.

Evans, Scotland’s senior civil servant, was appearing before the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints to give evidence on the development of the Scottish Government’s harassment policy.

This forms part of the committee’s wider inquiry into the handling of complaints against the former first minister, which saw the Scottish Government pay around £500,000 in costs after its investigation of complaints was found to be unlawful at a judicial review.

In her opening statement to the committee, the permanent secretary apologised “unreservedly” for the “procedural failure” in how the policy was applied and said lessons had been learned.

Evans told the committee the rapid development of the new policy from October to December 2017 had been in response to a commission from the Scottish cabinet.

At the same time instructions had come from the head of the civil service in the UK, Sir Jeremy Heywood, to all heads of civil service departments to “satisfy yourself rapidly” that they had appropriate sexual harassment procedures in place.

This was set against the #metoo movement and “a febrile atmosphere” on social media alongside a number of high-profile cases of sexual harassment in the media.

Evans said the reason for the focus on harassment by current and former ministers was that this had already been identified as a gap in the existing fairness at work policy, which dealt with bullying and issues between civil servants.

Evans denied that the new policy had been rushed.

She said: “I would hesitate to say it was rushed. I don't think that's accurate.

“I think it was an intense piece of work and it was a very focused piece of work.

“And … you will see from the paperwork that we have provided and subsequently as well, if you speak to the deputy director who led on this piece of work, it was highly consultative within the organisation and indeed, drew on guidance from ACAS and we also spoke to Police Scotland about it.

“It was not self-contained within one division, so it needed a fair amount of coordination as well.

“And it was informed at every stage by legal advice and by HR expertise.

“So I wouldn't say it was rushed, but I'd say it was intense.”

Asked by SNP MSP Angela Constance whether Evans was “absolutely confident” in the policy when she signed it off, Evans said that she was.

There was open disagreement in the committee when it came to questions on informal procedures that might have been in place around working with Alex Salmond.

Convener Linda Fabiani disallowed a question from Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser on whether the permanent secretary was aware that female civil servants had been advised not to work alone with Salmond, as had been claimed by some civil servants during the criminal trial – although this was denied by others.

Evans said she could not comment on it.

And Evans said she did not recognise a description of Salmond’s office submitted in evidence by civil service union the FDA that there had been a “culture of fear”, where civil servants were unable to “speak truth to power” or carry out their duties effectively.

Evans said: “I read the FDA’s submission with interest. I don't recognise the term ‘culture of fear’. It's not one that I would use.”

However, she said that in her time as permanent secretary she had strengthened pastoral care in ministerial private offices and had worked with trade unions around people feeling able to make formal complaints and on changing he culture of the organisation.

She said: “One of the things that I have been at most pains to do as permanent secretary since 2015, is … that we should call out areas of poor behaviour.

“Anything which makes people feel uncomfortable or are lacking in confidence in being able to bring [their] full selves to work.

“So I'm very fixed at the moment on where the organisation still needs to address issues.

“Changing a culture does not take months; it takes years. And I'm not complacent, but we have got a more inclusive culture than we did have”.

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