Alex Salmond inquiry: Nicola Sturgeon 'misled the committee' as judicial review fiasco labelled a 'serious, substantial and entirely avoidable situation'

The long-awaited report into the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond has concluded that Nicola Sturgeon did mislead Parliament over the nature of a meeting with the former first minister on April 2, 2018.

In a split decision with all SNP members of the committee dissenting, the Holyrood inquiry said the First Minister left Mr Salmond with “the impression” that she would intervene and that she “has misled the committee on this matter”.

They added, again in a split decision, they were "not in a position to take a view” on the details of the 29 March, 2018 meeting with Mr Salmond's former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein. But they said Mr Salmond’s version of events was “the more persuasive”.

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The Holyrood report into the Scottish Government's handling of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond has been published.

The committee also found, again in a split decision, that it was “inappropriate” for the First Minister to keep meeting and speaking with Mr Salmond during the investigation of the complaints and that she should have made the permanent secretary, Leslie Evans, aware of those meetings “at the earliest opportunity”.

The speed of the development of the procedure was also found to potentially have had a “detrimental impact” on the procedure in terms of its clarity and robustness.

The inquiry also found the “multiple roles” of the permanent secretary “should have been seen as a risk” and recommends a “thorough review” and the implementation of demonstrable measures to “minimise the risk of a leak of information ever happening again”.

On the judicial review, the committee finds the Scottish Government was responsible for a “serious, substantial and entirely avoidable situation”, labelling the government’s document handling “seriously flawed” and directly led to the high level cost award to Alex Salmond.

Ms Evans is also subject to significant criticism, with her role in the failed defence of the judicial review described as an individual failing “as significant as the general corporate failing”.

Committee convener Linda Fabiani said there were “some extremely serious findings” in the report detailing “serious flaws”.

She 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.”

Among the committee’s recommendations include a potential “protocol” between the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government on when legal advice will be made available to parliamentary committees.

Labelling the delays with the provision of evidence as being “unacceptable”, the inquiry adds that it was “significantly impacted” by the failure of the Scottish Government to provide all relevant information quickly given “there would be full co-operation with the inquiry”.

The report also criticises Mr Salmond for sending documents directly to members of the committee, which included information that revealed the identities of complainers, labelling it a “very serious situation”.

It also recommends a potential new parliamentary committee which examines the “quality and standards of administration” provided by the civil service to the Scottish Government.

On the decision to appoint Judith Mackinnon as investigating officer, the key issue on which the judicial review was conceded, the committee said it was “astonishing that the potential for challenge around the perception of impartiality” was not identified by the civil service at this point.

Criticising the Scottish Government’s attitude to the committee, the report also concludes the Scottish Parliament “may have insufficient powers to hold the executive to account”, recommending the establishment of a commission to review the relationship and make recommendations for change.

Speaking this morning, Ms Sturgeon said she would “leave politics to others today”.

She said: "My thoughts today, one year on from the country going into lockdown, are with the almost 10,000 families across the country who have lost a loved one and everybody who has made really painful sacrifices over the last year.

"My priority today is to continue to take the decisions that help get the country through this most difficult times."

Reacting to the publication of the report, Jackie Baillie, the Scottish Labour member of the committee, said the inquiry had “called into question” Ms Sturgeon’s judgement.

Highlighting an “urgent need for reform” to the complaints procedure, Ms Baillie said the Scottish Government continues to “let down” women. She said the “determination to plough on” with the defence of the judicial review was “irresponsible”.

Ms 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.

“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.”

SNP members of the committee hit out at the conduct of opposition members on the committee, stating the approach by some MSPs could have a “chilling and counterproductive” impact on protecting the best interests of women.

In a statement, the members said: “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.”

Criticising the leaks of the evidence from the two complainers, Alasdair Allan, Maureen Watt and Stuart McMillan criticised opposition members for “considering the women collateral damage in the pursuit of political agendas”.

They added: “"And then last week, we had the final unedifying outcome of amendments being brought forward and voted to be included as final conclusions based on prejudiced opinion with no evidential basis in fact.

"This committee was trusted with the task of helping those who come forward with complaints of workplace abuse, but members of this committee abused that trust.”

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