MSPs complain to Alex Salmond committee convener after she shut down questioning

Three cross-party MSPs have complained to the chair of the new parliamentary committee investigating the Scottish Government’s handling of historic sexual harassment claims, about her decision to shut down a line of questioning about whether female staff were allegedly warned “not to be left alone” with former First Minister Alex Salmond.

Committee Convener Linda Fabiani MSP
Committee Convener Linda Fabiani MSP

SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, who is chairing the committee, yesterday said the question posed by Scots Tory MSP Murdo Fraser to the government's leading civil servant, Leslie Evans, was outwith the remit of the inquiry.

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Mr Fraser said it had been “stated publicly that female civil servants were advised not to be alone in the company of the former First Minister. Is that

something that you were aware of?” to which Ms Evans replied: “I cannot comment on that."

Ms Fabiani then interjected to say the question was “not entirely appropriate in relation to what we are doing at this committee under its remit” and despite protestations from other MSPs on the committee, Ms Fabiani refused to change her mind and prevented any further discussion of the matter.

The remit of the committee, which met for the first time yesterday, is to investigate how the policy on dealing with sexual harassment complaints made against current and former ministers was produced, and why when it was challenged by Mr Salmond in the Court of Session, the government lost its case and had to pay £512,000 in costs to him.

However the remit also states that the committee "intends to ask all relevant witnesses about Scottish Government culture as an ongoing theme of its scrutiny.”

This evening Mr Fraser, along with Scottish Labour MSP Jackie Ballie and Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP, Alex Cole-Hamilton, have written to Ms Fabiani raising their concerns about her decision.

The letter says: “Several members have stated on repeated occasions, in preparatory meetings of the committee, that an understanding of the culture that existed in the organisation and how concerns were dealt with informally before they became subject to formal procedure was essential to our committee’s work. At no point did you or any other committee member dissent from that view. As such we were taken aback that you were so vociferous in your opposition to this line of questioning.

“We are well aware of the legal issues surrounding our inquiry and have been well briefed by Parliamentary lawyers. We do not seek to examine the substance of allegations that have been tested and acquitted in court, but simply to understand the recollections of those involved in the creation of the procedure and those who were responsible for the day to day handling of complaints and concerns (either formally or informally) in the civil service at that time.”

It adds: “It is clear... that during that period when the procedure was created, there was little confidence in the formal complaints process amongst Government staff. As such, it seems that ‘concerns’ as the Permanent Secretary described them were commonly dealt with in an informal matter. We believe that an understanding of that reality is essential to our committee’s work going forward.

“At the time our Committee was established, the First Minister stated several times across three separate dates, that she, the Scottish Government and any officials involved would fully co-operate in any inquiry that takes place. Of most significance to this matter is the statement she made on 17th January 2019 when she told parliament:

'The inquiries will be able to request whatever material they want, and I undertake today that we will provide whatever material they request. That is the definition of full, thorough and open inquiries. It will not be for me to decide what material the parliamentary inquiry, when it gets under way, wants to request. My commitment is that the Government and I will co-operate fully with it, which is, I think, appropriate.'

“We believe that this statement captures the spirit in which our committee was established and would hope you would agree that for us to effectively discharge our responsibilities, then we need to go where the evidence takes us and hear a full account of how complaints, or concerns were dealt with both formally and informally before, during and after the establishment of the procedure.”

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