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SNP ‘dropped’ women who made complaints against Alex Salmond after its investigation was deemed unlawful

The SNP government “dropped” the women who made complaints against Alex Salmond after a judicial review found its investigation was unlawful, they told a damning Holyrood inquiry that concluded they were “badly” failed. The complainers – Ms A and Ms B – also said they had been “taken aback by the lack of contact and support from the Scottish Government” following the conclusion of the legal action, adding that “it felt as though we were just left to swim.” They said that the Scottish Government turned a “blind eye” towards “unacceptable behaviour” at the time of the alleged incidents and the “laughable” complaints policy would have involved the human resources director “having a chat” with Mr Salmond. But they also warned they had not seen a “meaningful change in culture” in Ms Sturgeon’s government and it had “given itself a bigger hill to climb because of the failure of the process.” Their damning private evidence to the inquiry was published in its 192-page report into the affair, which concluded that Nicola Sturgeon misled parliament and gave “an inaccurate account” of what happened at a meeting with Mr Salmond. The MSPs also said the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints, and the subsequent judicial review, was “seriously flawed” and levelled a series of major questions about the conduct and competency of Ms Sturgeon’s most senior civil servant. Opposition parties suggested Leslie Evans, the Scottish Government’s permanent secretary, should consider her position for her central role in the unlawful investigation and the tardy disclosure of key documents to the court in Mr Salmond’s successful judicial review petition. 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 the Petition.” In a conclusion that will heap further pressure on Ms Evans, it said “this state of affairs is unacceptable by an organisation such as the Scottish Government and that those responsible should be held accountable.” As disclosed in a leaked extract from the report last week, a majority of the nine MSPs on the committee concluded that Nicola Sturgeon had misled them over her role. They said her written evidence regarding a crucial meeting with Mr Salmond at her home on April 2, 2018 to discuss her government’s investigation into him was “an inaccurate account of what happened.” The report said there was a “fundamental contradiction” between Ms Sturgeon’s evidence about her meetings with Mr Salmond and that of his team. While it said the committee was unable to take a view on whether his or her account was correct, it noted that “the former First Minister’s version has the benefit of being confirmed by others.” They said they were “concerned” about how long it had taken Ms Sturgeon to inform the government’s permanent secretary that she was aware of the complaints and it was “inappropriate for the first minister to continue to meet and have discussions” with Mr Salmond. The inquiry also expressed its intense “frustration” over the SNP administration continually stymieing attempts for it to access documents it needed, including legal advice, and witnesses including Mr Salmond missing deadlines for evidence to be handed over. The committee concluded it had been “significantly impeded” by this and by the “Scottish Government’s approach to records management”, with minutes of key meetings missing. Its long-awaited report was published the morning after a separate inquiry was unveiled in which Ms Sturgeon was cleared of breaching the ministerial code. James Hamilton, the Irish lawyer who conducted the ministerial code investigation, concluded that it was for the Scottish Parliament to decide whether they were misled. However, Murdo Fraser, a Tory member of the committee, said: “The committee verdict is in – Nicola Sturgeon misled Parliament and the public. It seems clear that Nicola Sturgeon will refuse to abide by the principle of democratic accountability for her government’s monumental mistakes. “The committee report indicates that even if the First Minister won’t be held accountable, numerous senior government officials should consider their position.” Jackie Baillie, a Labour committee member, said: “We must never forget that at the heart of this matter are women who were failed by the Scottish Government. Three years on, nobody has yet taken responsibility for this failure. “The thread that runs through the rushed development of the harassment policy and the flawed implementation of the handling of complaints is the Permanent Secretary. She was involved in every aspect of the procedure and must bear much of the responsibility.” John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister, said: “The Scottish Government has acknowledged that it made mistakes and that these led to the judicial review being conceded, and I know that this had a real, and damaging, impact for the women who raised the complaints. We have apologised for this and we do so unreservedly again today. “I remain absolutely determined that the Scottish Government should ensure this does not happen again and that together we create a culture where these behaviours do not arise.” Mr Salmond won a judicial review when Scotland’s highest civil court found that the way a Scottish Government investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against him was handled was unlawful and “tainted with apparent bias”. Judith Mackinnon, the Scottish Government’s head of people advice, was appointed the investigating officer in the government inquiry, which started in early 2018, despite previously having contact with the two complainants. The Scottish Government only conceded the judicial review case at the 11th hour, resulting in Mr Salmond being handed £512,250 of taxpayers’ money to cover his legal costs. The committee’s inquiry was kickstarted after he was cleared of all charges at the High Court last year. He has previously said he was “no saint” but insisted that he had never “sexually harassed anyone.” Ms Sturgeon told the inquiry she had first heard concerns about his behaviour in Nov 2017 but its reported concluded this was “hard to believe”. She was his deputy for a decade between 2004 and 2014, including seven years as Deputy First Minister. The report said that in their private evidence session last week Ms A and Ms B said there was an ” an organisational culture which they felt did not challenge inappropriate behaviour by the former First Minister.” They said there was “complicity across a number of fronts in terms of people not challenging that behaviour” and “perhaps there were not clear boundaries for what was appropriate behaviour, or leadership in the organisation to challenge behaviours.” Although they said they were “lots of low-level concerns” that were “escalating”, they told the inquiry: “You can end up thinking that there is no point in raising anything.” Despite repeated claims from Ms Sturgeon that the women were the priority, they said they had “received no support from the Scottish Government in the time since the conclusion” of the judicial review in Jan 2019. One of the women said: “I was quite taken aback by the lack of contact and support from the Scottish Government after the conclusion of its process. “We were given regular updates over the period of the judicial review, but after that we were basically just dropped. “We went through the entirety of the police investigation and the criminal trial with next to no contact from the Scottish Government, let alone any kind of support.” Both women said they were “reassured throughout” about the Scottish Government’s casein the judicial review, with Mr Salmond’s complaint presented as a “narrow technicality”. Arguing that a new complaints procedure is only effective with the right workplace culture to give people the confidence to use it, one woman said: “Maybe things have changed significantly, but from what I have seen, I do not feel reassured that there has been a meaningful change in culture.” The committee was unanimous in saying that the government should have taken more time over the drafting of the new procedure they used to lodge their complaints against Mr Salmond, which included former ministers for the first time. The “multiple roles” fulfilled by Ms Evans in the process “should have been seen as a significant organisational risk”, the report found. It also expressed concern about the “tripartite nature” of the roles played by Nicola Richards, the government’s human resources chief, and Ms Mackinnon in Nov and Dec 2017. The inquiry said this “created a situation in which the concerns raised by Ms A and Ms B became indistinguishable from the development of the procedure.” MSPs said Ms Mackinnon had “built up a rapport and relationship of trust” with the two complainers and it was therefore “astonishing that the potential for challenge around the perception of impartiality of the Investigating Officer was not identified at this point”. “The Committee was given no evidence that a risk had been identified around the suitability of the Head of People Advice to take on the role of Investigating Officer,” it added. The inquiry was also critical of the government’s handling of the judicial review case brought by Mr Salmond, saying there was a “major flaw” and a “significant failure” in the failure to identify and hand over relevant documents to the court. Members were split over Ms Sturgeon’s role in the judicial review, but agreed by five votes to four that they were “concerned that the first minister decided to proceed with the judicial review despite clear advice that it would likely fail.” But they agreed unanimously that “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 the judicial review.” They said “this state of affairs is unacceptable by an organisation such as the Scottish government and that those responsible should be held accountable”. However, the committee appeared to give short shrift to Mr Salmond’s suggestions that the new complaints policy had been drawn up with him specifically in mind, saying it was “satisfied” that former ministers were included “as a result of a gap having been identified.” It also backed the explanation provided by Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive and Ms Sturgeon’s husband, for why he sent a WhatsApp message suggesting it would be a “good time to pressurise” police about the case. He said his intention had been to advise SNP members with “specific, personal questions” about the criminal case against Mr Salmond to address their questions to the police. In addition, the inquiry said Mr Salmond’s solicitors repeatedly sent unredacted documents directly to individual members of the committee rather than using the “document-handling procedure to ensure that no material that may inadvertently reveal the identity of the complainer is released.” The report said: “Given the focus that the Committee has had on confidentiality, this is a very serious situation.” Linda Fabiani, the committee’s SNP convener, said: “I have always been clear that at the heart of this inquiry are two women who made complaints of sexual harassment. “These women were badly let down by the Scottish Government, but they have also been let down by some members of our committee.” A statement issued by the committee’s four SNP members said: “We have substantial concerns that unfortunate behaviour by some committee members will have a chilling and counterproductive effect on our primary objective of protecting the best interests of women.” The Scottish Government and Mr Salmond were approached for comment. Salmond ‘could display bullying behaviour’ Nicola Sturgeon may have misled MSPs on a Holyrood committee, a new report has concluded. Members probing the Scottish Government’s botched handling of harassment allegations against former first minister Alex Salmond have said they “find it hard to believe” that Ms Sturgeon had “no knowledge of any concerns about inappropriate behaviour on the part of Mr Salmond prior to November 2017”. In a new report published on Tuesday, the Committee on the Scottish Government’s Handling of Harassment Complaints stated: “If she did have such knowledge, then she should have acted upon it. “If she did have such knowledge, then she has misled the committee.” The four SNP members of the committee disagreed with this statement, saying it “does not distinguish between bullying behaviour and sexual harassment”. They claimed that “some evidence to the inquiry indicated that the former first minister could display bullying behaviour” but “there has been no suggestion the First Minister was aware of sexual harassment”. The report also highlights a “fundamental contradiction” in the evidence the committee heard about a meeting between Ms Sturgeon and her predecessor in her Glasgow home on April 2 2018. Ms Sturgeon has previously stated it was at this meeting she first learned of the allegations against the former first minister. The committee said there was a difference in accounts from the current first minister and her predecessor on whether she would intervene in matters. The report said: “Taking account of the competing versions of events, the committee believes that she did in fact leave Mr Salmond with the impression that she would, if necessary, intervene.” MSPs said this was confirmed by Duncan Hamilton, who had accompanied Mr Salmond to the meeting. Speaking about Ms Sturgeon, the report said: “Her written evidence is therefore an inaccurate account of what happened and she has misled the committee on this matter. “This is a potential breach of the Ministerial Code under the terms of section 1.” Again, the four SNP MSPs on the committee dissented from this section of the report. ‘Concern’ details of Salmond meeting was not disclosed The Committee on the Scottish Government’s Handling of Harassment Complaints also said it was “concerned” that Nicola Sturgeon did not disclose details of her meeting with Alex Salmond to the Scottish Government’s most senior civil servant, Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, until June 6 – more than two months after the meeting at the First Minister’s home. The report said: “Given the sensitivities of the matter and the fact that it related to internal government complaints handling, the committee believes that it was inappropriate for the First Minister to continue to meet and have discussions with the former first minister on this topic. “She should have made the Permanent Secretary aware of her state of knowledge of the complaints and the facts of the meetings at the earliest opportunity after April 2, at which point she should have confirmed that she would cease to have any further contact with Mr Salmond on that subject.” SNP MSPs on the committee however did not agree with this. The Committee on the Scottish Government’s Handling of Harassment Complaints published its report less than 24 hours after a separate report by James Hamilton, the independent adviser on the Scottish Ministerial Code, concluded that Nicola Sturgeon had not breached its provisions. The committee said Mr Hamilton’s work had been “completely separate from the work of our inquiry”. But the MSPs’ report said: “It remains the case that the Ministerial Code is also in our remit. We have conducted our own evidence taking on this subject. “We consider it important that we report to the Parliament on the Ministerial Code in order to fulfil our remit.” Leaks from Scottish Parliament a ‘great shame’ Leaks from the Scottish Parliament committee investigating the handling of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond were a “great shame”, its convener said. Linda Fabiani said whoever leaked the information should have the “honour” to come forward. Speaking to the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland radio programme, she said the leaked elements had been “observations” from some committee members where unanimity had not been reached. “I think that’s a great shame because there’s so much in this report that was taken seriously and that we reached unanimity on,” she said. “And that should absolutely be the part from our report that the Scottish Government considers.” Ms Fabiani said she hoped whoever was responsible would have the “dignity and the honour to come forward”, saying the virtual nature of the committee meetings had made it hard to tell exactly what was “going on” during the sessions. Some of the committee’s unanimous findings were “very critical” of the Government at ministerial and Civil Service level, she said. The background of the saga The Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government’s unlawful investigation of Alex Salmond has concluded that the First Minister misled the Scottish Parliament. The Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints formally published its full report at 8am, more than two years after it was first established. The findings are separate from those of James Hamilton QC, who reported on Monday that there had been no breach of the ministerial code by Nicola Sturgeon over her role in the saga. The cross-party inquiry was set up after a successful judicial review by Mr Salmond resulted in the Scottish Government’s investigation being ruled unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias” in 2019. Mr Salmond was awarded a maximum payout of £512,250 after the government conceded the case a week before it was due to be heard in court because of prior contact between the investigating officer Judith Mackinnon and two of the women who made complaints. A Scottish Government policy for handling harassment complaints was drawn up in the wake of the Me Too movement, and was designed to include former ministers in the complaints process for the first time. It states that the investigating officer “will have had no prior involvement with any aspect of the matter being raised”, something that fatally undermined the Scottish Government’s defence. Committee members have held 14 public evidence sessions, questioning a range of witnesses about the development of the complaints policy that was used unlawfully, the handling of the allegations, Mr Salmond’s successful judicial review and the ministerial code. The First Minister was questioned for eight hours about her role in the botched investigation, as well as her predecessor Mr Salmond who used his appearance to accuse the First Minister of multiple breaches of the ministerial code and argue there was a “malicious” plot to remove him from public life. During her virtual appearance, Ms Mackinnon claimed to have always been open about her communication with two women who made complaints although the government’s lawyers reportedly only became aware of it in October 2018, months after Mr Salmond’s legal challenge had begun. A leak of the report’s findings last week suggested the inquiry concluded that Ms Sturgeon gave an “inaccurate” account of her meetings and phone calls with Mr Salmond about the investigation. It also indicated a majority of members are “concerned” it took Ms Sturgeon two months to tell the head of Scotland’s civil service she knew about the investigation. Speaking on Monday afternoon after Mr Hamilton’s report was published, Ms Sturgeon said: “I look forward, if that’s the right expression, to the committee report being published tomorrow and we will look at that in great detail. “But I cannot escape the conclusion that there are some members of that committee, because their public utterances show this, that decided before a single word of evidence had been taken that I was guilty of something and nothing was going to remove them from that view.” A motion of no confidence, tabled by the Scottish Conservatives, is due to be debated and voted upon on Tuesday afternoon. Ms Sturgeon added: “I’m confident that vote will express confidence in me. “Remember that the Tories said they would have a confidence vote in me before I uttered a single word of evidence before the parliamentary inquiry. “They have decided on this issue a long time ago this is a political stunt being brought forward by the Tories tomorrow.”

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