'No time limit' on harassment complaints against ministers in new procedure published after Alex Salmond inquiry

Ministers from the start of devolution could potentially be investigated by the Scottish Government if harassment complaints are made against them.

New Scottish Government guidance, which is the result of the damaging fallout from the harassment complaints scandal involving Alex Salmond, states that complaints such as the ones against the former first minister could be investigated.

Mr Salmond, who now leads the pro-independence Alba Party, won a judicial review case in 2019 over the Scottish Government’s investigation and official report into harassment complaints against him, costing the taxpayer more than £500,000.

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In early 2020, he was also acquitted at a high profile trial in Edinburgh of several sexual offence charges.

The Scottish Government's new complaints handling procedure has been published.

Nicola Sturgeon faced repeated calls to resign over her government’s botched handling of the complaints against her former mentor, but she was cleared of breaching the ministerial code by independent adviser James Hamilton.

The fresh guidance, published on Thursday, is the response to three separate investigations including the Hamilton report, a report by Laura Dunlop QC, and Holyrood’s inquiry into the handling of harassment complaints.

The guidance states that any complaint should be made “without reasonable delay”, but adds that there is “no time limit” on making a complaint around harassment.

It also means any fresh complaints against any former minister since the start of devolution could be investigated using the new procedure.

A six month time limit will be set for any complaints around bullying or other “unwanted conduct”.

However, the guidance adds that a complaint may not be able to be investigated by the new procedure if the passage of time means it cannot be looked at “fairly and effectively”.

Under the new rules, complaints will be investigated by an external investigator dedicated to collecting the facts and evidence, with a report submitted to a separate external decision maker.

This individual will then share copies of the report with the complainant and complainer, and decide whether to uphold the complaint and make any recommendations.

A route of appeal will also be available to both the complainer or the subject of the complaint.

The new permanent secretary, JP Marks, will sign off a pool of independent investigators and adjudicators in the coming months.

Announcing the guidance, deputy first minister John Swinney said the government had learned “valuable lessons” during the scandal.

He said: “The updated procedure is part of the organisation’s commitment to embedding a culture where bullying and harassment is not tolerated and where there is trust in how matters will be handled if things go wrong. Where a complaint is necessary it is crucial those involved have confidence and can engage constructively and fairly in the process.

“We are determined to make this procedure as robust as possible for those raising a formal complaint, which is why we will invite our independent advisers to offer advice on any necessary adjustments to the Scottish ministerial code in the context of this update to ensure ministers engage fully with it.

“This on-going work is informed by our engagement with trade unions and employees, including those with lived experiences of bullying and harassment. It is crucial in helping us build a positive and respectful culture with the highest standards of behaviour so that the Scottish Government can continue to carry out its programme delivering for the people of Scotland.”

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