The Scottish Parliament’s Committee on Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints started taking evidence in public this week, with an appearance by the Permanent Secretary, Leslie Evans. The committee was established following the former First Minister Alex Salmond’s court victory over the Scottish Government in relation to the handling of the complaints against him by civil servants.
Already, some very concerning information has been disclosed to the committee. The FDA, the trade union for senior civil servants, has stated that there have been 30 complaints by officials in five Scottish ministerial departments in the past ten years. This means that it has received more complaints about bullying by ministers in the Scottish Government than across all UK ministerial departments put together. This is an extraordinary statistic, and suggests that there has been an endemic problem within the SNP administration in the Scottish Government. The FDA’s Dave Penman says that these complaints refer to “a whole range of behaviour: shouting and bawling, unreasonable demands, calls at three in the morning”.
In its written submission to the committee, the FDA states that “the culture within the former First Minister’s office and other ministerial offices in relation to bullying behaviour became a concern for us and was raised with successive Permanent Secretaries. Although action was taken and short-term improvements or apologies were made, this did not bring about an overall change in culture. Some civil servants expressed to us that they were operating in a culture of fear or were unable to speak truth unto power and discharge their duties effectively”.
The FDA refer to these concerns dating back until 2010, but it was some seven years later before a director was appointed within the Scottish Government to champion work to tackle bullying and harassment. There are serious questions as to why this issue was not addressed more effectively, or expeditiously. Giving evidence yesterday to the Committee, Leslie Evans stated that she did not recognise that there had been “a culture of fear” in the Scottish Government. But when I asked her directly if it was true that female civil servants were advised not to be alone in the presence of the ex-First Minister (as stated by witnesses at the Salmond trial), she refused to comment.
It is worth remembering that this is Scotland’s most senior civil servant giving evidence to a parliamentary committee on oath. Her refusal to deny such a policy existed speaks volumes. If Leslie Evans won’t tell us what happened in the office of the former First Minister, then surely his loyal deputy, and successor in office, Nicola Sturgeon, has to come clean and give us the facts. Is it conceivable that she could have been unaware of such advice to civil servants, and if she was aware, why was it covered up?
Everyone accepts that working at the top of government means operating in a high-pressured environment. There is not, however, any excuse at any time for bullying or inappropriate behaviour. It must be a real concern that it seems widely known that there were problems at the heart of the SNP Government, and yet it took so long for these to be addressed.
While much of the media focus on the committee’s inquiry will be around the events that led to the criminal trial involving the former First Minister Alex Salmond, it is clear that the issues at the heart of the matter go well beyond this. Members of the Scottish Parliament have a duty of care to civil servants to ensure that they operate in a safe and secure working environment, and one where the concerns that they raise are taken seriously, and effectively addressed. If there have been failures to deliver this on the part of those at the top, whether ministers or civil servants, they have to be held to account for that.
Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife
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