Leslie Evans, Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government, refuted the suggestion that a new process in handling historic sexual harassment complaints had been written "to get Alex Salmond".
Yet she admitted alerting Nicola Sturgeon to concerns about her predecessor in November 2017, while the policy was being drafted – although the First Minister has said she was not aware of complaints to the Scottish Government about Alex Salmond’s behaviour until April 2018.
Ms Evans also claimed Police Scotland were alerted to three complaints of historic sexual misconduct by Mr Salmond – though only two cases were at the centre of the controversial civil court case that saw him win a legal victory over the government’s bungled handling of the internal investigation.
However the Scottish Government later said she was referring to “three separate matters raised in the two complaints we received which were drawn to the attention of Police Scotland”, rather than one complaint being dropped.
Giving evidence as the initial wtiness in the first meeting of the specially-convened parliamentary committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, Leslie Evans said she knew in early November 2017 that there were reports of alleged harassment by Mr Salmond.
Just a month earlier she had been commissioned by the First Minister to develop a new civil service sexual harassment policy, which would include former ministers, in the light of the #MeToo movement. The policy was finally signed off by Ms Sturgeon in December 2017, and the government launched its internal investigation a month later.
Challenged by Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton about when she first new of concerns about Mr Salmond's alleged misconduct, Ms Evans said she was approached by staff, who had been contacted by the former First Minister over an “incident" at Edinburgh Airport which Sky News were investigating in November 2017.
She said she had told Ms Sturgeon about Mr Salmond's actions, and her own concerns for the upset it had caused staff.
She added: Concern was raised by a whole range of people in November 2017… I was made aware of contact that had taken place between Mr Salmond and certain Scottish Government members of staff in early November. He had wanted to talk to them about a piece of media work and I was told by two different sources, one extremely concerned, that they had received this contact, and were bewildered and unhappy about it.”
“I didn't know what was said, I didn't ask, it didn't feel appropriate but I was concerned about the staff, who are my priority in these sets of circumstances.
“I mentioned that Mr Salmond had been in touch with staff about an Edinburgh Airport incident that Sky News was investigating, I did mention it to the First Minister. I said I was concerned because staff were anxious about it, and because it could be come a story and so that we'd be ready for whatever story might blow.
“At the same time I was told there were other people coming forward with concerns – not complaints, they were not registered."
Sky News ran a story in November 2018 about sexual misconduct claims against Mr Salmond, involving female employees at the airport around 2008. Mr Salmond denied the allegations and they were not part of this year's criminal case, which saw him acquitted of a series of other sexual assault charges.
Yet Ms Sturgeon has previously told MSPs that she as only informed of allegations against Mr Salmond in April 2018 and that he told her himself at her Glasgow home. However Ms Evans’s evidence suggests Ms Sturgeon may have had an earlier, fuller picture of allegations, than she has admitted.
Mr Cole-Hamilton asked whether knowledge of staff concerns had influenced the development of the policy, as “the optics of this are not great.”
"Was this targeted policy, which only applied to harassment complaints against former ministers, engineered to fit any complaint that had been arrived at through the Scottish Government?” he asked. “Was it designed to get Alex Salmond?”
Ms Evans replied: “No, absolutely not.”
Scottish Labour MSP Jackie Ballie also asked when she knew of the “likelihood of concerns or complaints made against the former First Minister?” and again Ms Evans cited the Sky News Edinburgh Airport enquiries in November 2017.
She added: “After that I was made aware of a range of people - though I didn’t know who - were raising concerns about a range of different circumstances, I understood, although I wasn’t told about them. And one of those I was alerted to had referenced Mr Salmond.”
Ms Baillie asked: “When was that?” Ms Evans replied: “That was in early November.”
The committee inquiry is looking at how the Government messed up its own probe into sexual misconduct claims made against Mr Salmond in 2018. He launched a judicial review into the process in the Court of Session, and the outcome was an admission from ministers it had been unfair, unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”, and a £512,000 bill for Mr Salmond’s costs.
The MSPs are also looking at whether Nicola Sturgeon broke the Scottish ministerial code by staying in contact with Mr Salmond while her officials were investigating him.
Ms Evans, who was under oath, was the committee’s first witness and gave evidence on the development of the complaints process which was used against Mr Salmond.
She said the government had taken advice from Police Scotland when developing the complaints procedure to ensure victims were free to go the police if they wished – and that this was part of the final policy.
She said: “As our investigation – and I know we’re not going into the application of that now – but as that reached its conclusion, the Scottish Government decided, informed by legal advice, that three of the complaints should be referred to Police Scotland, and of course as a government, and indeed as a civil service, we have to comply with the law.”
In her evidence she also revealed that a woman at the centre of one of the complaints was shown a draft copy of the harassment policy before it was approved, to get a “lived experience” view of the document.
Asked by SNP MSP Angela Constance about why the draft policy was “shared with a potential complainant” on December 14 “when the policy wasn't signed off by the First Minister until the 20th", Ms Evans said: "I wasn't aware because I wasn’t close to the procedure development as you'd expect, It's increasingly the case that in developing policy and procedure we base it as much as possible on what is called “lived experience”, in order for it to have resonance and relevance it needs to be, not at the pen of a civil servant, but what people are wrestling with in their own lives.
“So that would have been part of that - if someone had raised a concern, and a number had by this time, it wouldn't have been beyond professional practice to have asked about that. It was the final draft and I don't believe there were any changes made as a result of that sharing.”
Leslie Evans refused to answer a question from Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser about her knowledge of claims that female civil servants were allegedly not to be left alone with Alex Salmond. This was a disputed claim made during Mr Salmond’s separate criminal trial.
The question was rejected by the committee chair, SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, despite objections from other members.
However Ms Fabiani did urge Ms Evans and ministers to reconsider their refusal to hand over files related to the judicial review on the basis of “legal privilege” and a refusal to allow certain officials to give evidence.
After the committee Jackie Baillie said the Permanent Secretary’s evidence “left many questions unanswered”. She said: “The drafting process of the policy on the handling of harassment complaints was clearly rushed and remains shrouded in secrecy; the timeline exposes inconsistencies and complaints were lodged before the policy had even been published.
“The inclusion of ‘former ministers’ to the policy appears to have been added at a point that coincided with the Permanent Secretary and others becoming aware of allegations made against the former First Minister.
“It is the role of this committee to uncover how it came to be that the Scottish taxpayer was made to foot the bill for an expensive and botched investigation. We must have clarity and transparency from the Scottish Government going forward.”
Murdo Fraser MSP, also said that Ms Evans was choosing "secrecy over scrutiny" and added: “Ducking questions on day one is not a good look for someone who cost the Scottish public more than £500,000.
“She cannot refuse questions about the claims that female civil servants couldn’t work alone with Alex Salmond. And the SNP convener cannot shut down valid enquiries – or else it’s clear that the cover up is already under way."
Mr Fraser said that the “stunning revelation” of Alex Salmond’s contact with staff and Nicola Sturgeon being aware of this, “tells you all you need to know about a government that is rotten at its core.”
“Are we really to believe that the First Minister didn’t ask anyone what Mr Salmond was saying? She really didn’t even look into this matter any further? We are genuinely meant to accept that Leslie Evans didn’t even ask what the Sky News story was about – and neither did the First Minister?
“It seems that Nicola Sturgeon has been caught out by her permanent secretary and she must urgently come clean about what she knew and when.”
A message from the Editor:Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.Subscribe to scotsman.com and enjoy unlimited access to Scottish news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.
Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.