Investigating Alex Salmond complaints 'right thing to do' says Scotland's top civil servant

18 August 2020, 11:11

Leslie Evans was questioned by MSPs investigating the Scottish Government's handling of the harassment allegations
Leslie Evans was questioned by MSPs investigating the Scottish Government's handling of the harassment allegations. Picture: PA

By Asher McShane

Investigating harassment complaints against former first minister Alex Salmond was the "right thing to do", Scotland's most senior civil servant has said.

Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans apologised "unreservedly" for a "procedural failure" in the inquiry and insisted lessons have been learned from the process.

The Court of Session in Edinburgh last year ruled the Scottish Government's handling of the complaints against the former first minister was "unlawful".

As a Holyrood committee began its own investigation into what happened, Ms Evans said: "When complaints were raised it would have been unconscionable, and a failure in our duty of care, not to investigate those complaints.

"It was accepted at judicial review that one part of our procedure should have been applied differently.

"I apologise unreservedly to all concerned for this procedural failure."

She added: "We have already learned early lessons from this experience as part of work being led by our people directorate.

"And we also await the findings of the review which I commissioned, externally led by Laura Dunlop QC, now under way.

"But it remains the case that the investigation of those complaints was the right thing to do."

Ms Evans claimed the Scottish Government "is and remains ahead of many other institutions in designing and implementing a procedure to address harassment and particularly to address historical allegations of sexual misconduct".

Her comments come after the FDA union, which represents civil servants, raised concerns about "bullying behaviour" within the Scottish Government and also about the "the culture within the former first minister's office"

Giving her evidence to MSPs on the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, Ms Evans said: "I am clear that the Scottish Government acted in good faith.

"The transparency of our written procedure means that it is open to challenge and scrutiny. I accept that scrutiny - we shall apply the learning."

The Permanent Secretary is the first witness to give evidence to the committee - with Mr Salmond and his successor, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, to have their say at a later date.

Key members of staff for both the current and former first minister will also be called, as well as Ms Sturgeon's husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.

The committee has already agreed the unusual step of taking evidence under oath.

Ms Evans told the committee "the Scottish Government has been on a journey of cultural change since 2015 to ensure the organisation is more open, capable and responsive".

She added: "As Permanent Secretary, I have led a focus on equality, inclusion and wellbeing, including addressing bullying and harassment."

Ms Evans said the under-reporting of sexual harassment "appears to be endemic across most organisations and institutions" but more people in the Scottish Government are now prepared to speak out.

"This is still work in progress but there is evidence of improvement," she told the MSPs.

"Our most recent People Survey showed a marked increase in the reporting of bullying and/or harassment - with 57% of those who had experienced bullying and harassment saying they had reported it - up 19% points from previous year.

"Staff's positive experience of inclusion and fair treatment reached its highest ever score at 83% - amongst the highest in the whole of the UK Civil Service."

The Permanent Secretary concluded her opening remarks by saying: "In her 2018 report into bullying and harassment in the House of Commons Dame Laura Cox found 'people who have been bullied or sexually harassed, or who have seen this happen to others, are generally reluctant to come forward and report it'.

"By creating the culture and environment in which complaints of this nature could be raised and in which subsequent investigation of those complaints could take place, the Scottish Government did not take the easy path - but it is the right one."

Ms Evans later told Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser she did "not recognise" claims by the FDA union of a "culture of fear" experienced by some civil servants.

She also said she could not comment on claims that female staff were "advised not to be alone" with the former first minister.

Ms Fabiani then told the Tory she was not sure his question was "entirely appropriate" given the committee's remit.

Asked if complaints about bullying were raised with her, the Permanent Secretary said: "I don't remember ever being given a specific complaint from a trade union about a specific bullying behaviour."

But she added there had been cases "addressed at an informal level of bullying and harassment against ministers".

She said there had been two of these "I think" since 2007.

Ms Evans added: "I am aware of concerns raised in the past about certain behaviours, I cannot say other than that.

"That is based on confidential conversations and I would prefer not to say more than that."