Scotland's civil service needs to up its game after too many cock-ups – Gina Davidson

It has been said there is “something rotten” in the Scottish Government, a damning phrase which reeks of corruption and conspiracy.

After evidence sessions from Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon to the Holyrood committee investigating how the government handled complaints of sexual harassment so badly that a judge ruled the process was “tainted with apparent bias” and unlawful, it’s hard to imagine a more monumental cock-up, compounded by the hubris of a government in power for too long.

Those desperate to see Sturgeon go will have to wait for the report by James Hamilton QC on potential breaches of the ministerial code, rather than any recommendations by a committee which, 20 days from the pre-election dissolution of Parliament, still waits for vital information from the Scottish government. If there was no cover-up, the government has certainly gone out its way to make it look as if there was.

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While there’s an expectation of prevarication from politicians put on the spot, it’s quite the opposite for the impartial civil service.

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Never before has it been under such intense scrutiny, and the Salmond saga has pulled back the curtain and revealed there’s no grand wizard at the controls. It seems there’s no-one there at all to take responsibility for a flawed process and a cost to the taxpayer believed to be near the £1m mark.

Integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality are the key words in the civil service code. Those in senior positions especially should be able to speak truth to power, to point out potential pitfalls and flaws. They should never allow themselves to be co-opted into political pet projects.

The #metoo movement was the inspiration behind the new sexual harassment complaints procedure for civil servants and it was undoubtedly the right thing to do. It was in the drafting of the policy and in its execution that the problems lay. Pitfalls which should have been spotted were not.

Leslie Evans leads the Scottish civil service which is under huge scrutiny (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)

It’s not the only time an apparent lack of scrutiny of policy by civil servants has occurred recently. That surely must be the explanation or the service is so cowed, ministers so over-bearing, that any red flags waved by staff are easily ignored.

The illiberal Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, famously described by one sheriff as “mince”, was repealed; the Named Person scheme was dumped after the Supreme Court said parts were “unlawful”; reform of the Gender Recognition Act was put on ice after an apparent lack of rigour in how it might interact with the Equality Act. A law which requires all homes to have interlinked smoke alarms was delayed for a year because, as Age Scotland said “no-one knew about it”; the Bill to restrict fireworks was discovered to include “unintended consequences” for the fireworks industry and will need altered.

Then there’s the sorry mess that is the Hate Crime Bill. The intentions are good, the execution poor. Humza Yousaf has ignored countless concerns about freedom of expression. You might imagine the SNP’s earlier problems would see them tread carefully. Surely his civil servants must be pointing out these issues to him?

If they are not then it’s a dereliction of duty. If they are, then the Justice Minister has seemingly learned no lessons from previous mistakes made by his government and this will be another Bill which could result in court action before it is quite possibly binned.

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