Nicola Sturgeon pledges to 'put complainants at heart' of harassment procedures after Alex Salmond inquiries

Nicola Sturgeon has claimed the Scottish Government has produced a “comprehensive plan” to tackle the errors made in how it handled harassment allegations against former first minister Alex Salmond, but questions have been raised about the head of the civil service’s involvement in the new procedure.

In a formal response to three inquiries into the government’s botched handling of the allegations, the First Minister pledged to “learn from mistakes” and “put the interests of those making complaints at the heart” of a new plan to improve the handling of bullying and harassment complaints in the Scottish Government

She said she wanted to “embed a culture where bullying and harassment is not tolerated” and “where there is trust in how matters will be handled if things go wrong”, with future complaints against ministers due to be handled externally rather than by the Scottish Government’s human resources department.

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Nicola Sturgeon has said complainants will be at the heart of any new harassment policy process.

However, questions were immediately raised by Scottish Labour about the involvement of head of the civil service, Leslie Evans, in drawing up any new procedure. Ms Evans was heavily criticised by the Holyrood committee that investigated her handling of the complaints against Mr Salmond.

The party's deputy leader Jackie Baillie, who sat on the investigating parliamentary committee, said while a new procedure was welcome, Ms Evans should not be involved.

“Given the several failings on the part of the Permanent Secretary, as revealed by the committee's work, it is simply wrong for her to have a leading role in the creation of the new process,” she said.

“Indeed, the committee concluded that the Permanent Secretary should consider her position."

The plan, published on Monday, is the government’s formal response to a trio of inquiries into its botched handling of complaints of sexual harassment by two civil servants against Mr Salmond.

Ms Sturgeon said the new measures include an external, independent procedure to oversee formal complaints about former and current ministers’ behaviour and a “propriety and ethics team” to ensure high standards across the Scottish civil service.

There would also be action to improve how the government uses, stores and retrieves information and records, she said, after the government had been criticised for failing to produce information to the Holyrood committee investigating its actions.

In the summary to the report, Ms Sturgeon said: “At the heart of the three reports are the complaints from two women who spoke of unacceptable behaviour in the course of performing their duties as civil servants.

"These complaints could not be ignored. Everyone should be able to expect a respectful and safe working environment. This is both a legal right and core to the values of the organisation.”

She added: “Our goal is to embed a culture where bullying and harassment is not tolerated and where there is trust in how matters will be handled if things go wrong.

"This work is informed by engagement with our recognised trade unions and by staff, including those with lived experiences of bullying and harassment.

“We are determined to learn from and apply the insights from these reports to build a culture in government where concerns are addressed early, and where all those involved with a complaint have confidence and can engage constructively and fairly in the process.”

The civil service process of investigating the complaints against Mr Salmond was never officially completed as the former first minister launched an ultimately successful judicial review into how he was treated by the government, costing the taxpayer more than £500,000, while a police investigation into a number of allegations resulted in a criminal trial, which went on to clear Mr Salmond of all charges.

Following the judicial review, a report into the government processes by Laura Dunlop QC, an expert in public law, recommended sweeping changes in the way the government investigated harassment complaints against ministers and former ministers.

The review by James Hamilton into whether Ms Sturgeon had broken the ministerial code concluded she had not. But Mr Hamilton said he had been “deeply frustrated that applicable court orders will have the effect of preventing the full publication of a report which fulfils my remit and which I believe it would be in the public interest to publish”.

The Scottish Parliament’s committee on harassment complaints, however, came to a different conclusion regarding potential breaches of the code.

The committee said the Scottish Government was responsible from an early stage “for a serious, substantial and entirely avoidable situation that resulted in a prolonged, expensive and unsuccessful defence” of a judicial review and suggested “those responsible should be held accountable”.

The government’s new “comprehensive plan” will take on board all the criticisms made and MSPs will be updated on progress by the end of 2021, Ms Sturgeon confirmed.

The report acknowledges “care must be taken” in developing the new policy – reflecting a criticism the previous harassment policy had been rushed by Ms Evans.

"To be effective the policy will depend upon wide acceptance – individuals need to have confidence to come forward and all parties need to engage in good faith,” the report states. “We will endeavour to get a new procedure in place as quickly as possible and, at the latest, by the end of this calendar year.”

Despite her criticism of Ms Evans, Ms Baillie welcomed the report and added: “Throughout the work of the committee it became apparent that the Scottish Government's processes for dealing with harassment complaints were simply not fit for purpose.

"A great many people, particularly women, have already been failed by the government’s flawed procedures and for that they should be ashamed.

“Today’s reports and the recommendations contained within them are welcome.”

Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser said:

“Promising to learn from their past mistakes is a step in the right direction from the Scottish Government, but the devil will be in the detail as to what processes they will ultimately put into practice.

“We’ve shamefully still to see anyone take responsibility or lose their top roles despite overwhelming failures in dealing with previous harassment complaints."

Allan Sampson, Scotland officer for the FDA, the union for senior managers and professionals in public service, said: “This is a victory for all those working in Scottish Government, particularly those who have spoken out and fought to make it a better place to work even at the expense of their own careers.”

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