Salmond inquiry: Complaints about ministers dealt with informally 'in a number of settings'

Evidence from former Permanent Secretary Sir Peter Housden said there was historic allegations of misconduct.

New evidence has 'cast doubt' on the suggestion Nicola Sturgeon was unaware of alleged inappropriate behaviour by ministers,  opposition parties have claimed.
New evidence has 'cast doubt' on the suggestion Nicola Sturgeon was unaware of alleged inappropriate behaviour by ministers, opposition parties have claimed.

Complaints about ministers were dealt with “informally” in a “number of settings”, the latest evidence at the Salmond inquiry has revealed.

Sir Peter Housden, who was permanent secretary in the Scottish Government between 2010 and 2015, said he regularly dealt with complaints about behaviour but that confidentiality meant he could not discuss specifics.

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The written evidence, submitted to the harassment complaints committee tasked at examining the development of the procedure which led to Alex Salmond winning a judicial review case against the government, costing the taxpayer £500,000, covered the culture of the government during two permanent secretaries’ tenure.

Both the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Labour said the evidence cast “further doubt” that Nicola Sturgeon was not aware of allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

In Sir Peter’s evidence, he said he dealt informally with many complaints and said there were “different ways of handling relations with staff”.

He said: “Particular allegations of bullying and harassment would, from memory, be discussed with me in ad hominem terms. The efficacy of our grievance and other procedures to support staff were, however, often discussed in my meetings, including those the trade unions.

"We all needed to have confidence that appropriate measures were in place and we were acting on situations where indicated.

“In considering our general approach, informal resolution was generally considered by all parties to the most appropriate and effective solution.

“Ministers are of course individuals and within any administration there will be a variety of personalities involved and different ways of handing relations with staff.

“Where there were individual Ministers whose behaviour was a cause for concern, the expectation was that the Permanent Secretary would manage these situations without recourse to formal procedures. Confidentiality requirements preclude me from sharing the particulars my experience but I took actions on these lines in a number of settings.

Sir Peter’s comments came alongside written evidence from Sir John Elvidge, permanent secretary between 2003 and 2010 who said the stress felt by ministers was often the driver behind unacceptable behaviour.

He said civil servants developed an “empathetic understanding” of the stresses, meaning “ministers did not experience the kind of feedback about their behaviours which might occur in other working environments”.

Jackie Baillie, deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party and harassment committee member, said the evidence “casts further doubt” on the idea Nicola Sturgeon was unaware of inappropriate behaviour.

She said: “This latest evidence to the Committee appears to confirm what has long been suspected: the workplace culture in the Scottish Government was not conducive to the wellbeing of staff and complaints about potentially serious issues were dealt with informally.

“It is vital that all pertinent evidence is provided to the committee by the Scottish Government and other parties.

“This revelation casts further doubt on the First Minister’s claim to be ignorant of such behaviours occurring when it is clear that such behaviours were regular occurrences at the time.”

Scottish Conservative spokesperson on the Salmond inquiry, Murdo Fraser MSP, said: “It is an extraordinary admission that problematic behaviour from ministers would be dealt with informally, and that these procedures took place ‘in a number of settings.’

“We have no idea how many times these informal discussions took place, who with, or most importantly, how serious the complaints were.

“But it’s clear that Nicola Sturgeon’s position that she knew nothing about any allegations of inappropriate behaviour is becoming flimsier with every piece of evidence that comes out.

“The First Minister cannot claim to have been in the dark, like the rest of us, when a number of allegations and complaints were taking place along the corridors of the SNP government.

“The inquiry must hear from Nicola Sturgeon about what she knew and when she knew it.”

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