A civil servant has admitted deleting a controversial text sent to her by Scotland’s most senior official after Alex Salmond’s successful court action against the Scottish Government.
Communications Director Barbara Allison had originally denied receiving the electronic message from Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, which said: “Battle maybe lost but not the war”.
The text has been interpreted by Alex Salmond’s supporters as evidence of a conspiracy against the former first minister.
When Ms Allison first appeared under oath in front of the Salmond inquiry last month, she answered “no” when asked if she had received the text by Labour MSP Jackie Baillie.
But minutes before she was due to appear in front of the MSPs overseeing the inquiry for a second time, the Scottish Parliament published a letter from Ms Allison that revealed she had, in fact, received the message.
Thanks Barbara – battle maybe lost but not the war. Hope you are having lovely & well deserved break.”
Text from Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans to senior colleague Barbara Allison
In her letter, Ms Allison said she wanted to “correct the unintended inaccuracy in my previous statement”.
She said she had answered Ms Baillie to the “best of my recollection” at the time, but had since contacted the Crown Office asking for a copy of material retrieved from her mobile phone in connection with Mr Salmond’s criminal trial. Mr Salmond was cleared of all sexual offence charges earlier this year.
The material provided by the Crown showed Ms Allison had received the message on January 8 2019, the day that Mr Salmond won his civil case against the government.
Ms Allison was on holiday when she received Ms Evans’s message, which read: “Thanks Barbara – battle maybe lost but not the war. Hope you are having lovely & well deserved break.”
Ms Allison, who was in the Maldives, replied: “Thanks Leslie. It is lovely here. My mind and thoughts are with you all tho. Best Wishes.”
Appearing in front of the Salmond inquiry for a second time, Ms Allison said the material had been deleted but she had kept earlier texts from one of the two women who complained against the former first minister.
I don’t routinely keep all my texts. I will clear out texts. So, yes, I must have deleted some texts.”
Asked by Lib Dem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton if she had deleted Ms Evans’s text about winning the war, Ms Allison replied: “Yes”.
She said she had “deliberately” kept texts she had received from one of the complainers against Mr Salmond in 2017 because she was “very conscious” that they were the only record of her contact with her.
“The only thing I had about the contact were the texts so I kept those texts,” Ms Allison explained. “I don’t routinely keep all my texts. I will clear out texts. So, yes, I must have deleted some texts.”
Ms Allison was asked by MSPs if there was a copy of a text message she sent to Ms Evans to trigger the permanent secretary’s reply.
She was unable to recall if there was one, adding that as she had not been sent it by the Crown Office she assumed it didn’t exist.
The battle and the war
Ms Baillie asked Ms Allison what Ms Evans meant by the battle and the war. Ms Allison replied that she assumed the battle referred to the judicial review and the war referred to equality and the “broad context” of trying to ensure women came forward.
The Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of claims of harassment made against Mr Salmond was established in the wake of Mr Salmond’s successful civil action.
Mr Salmond took the Scottish Government to a judicial review, which found that the Scottish Government’s internal process for dealing with the complaints was tainted with apparent bias.
Policy linked to botched investigation still in place
Before Ms Allison’s reappearance in front of the inquiry, MSPs heard from Judith Mackinnon, the civil servant appointed as investigating officer of the complaints.
Ms Mackinnon did not appear in person but gave evidence through an audio link, an innovation which followed weekend reports that she had been the victim of internet trolling.
The fact that Ms Mackinnon had prior contact with Mr Salmond’s accusers before the Scottish Government launched its internal investigation into their complaints played a crucial role in Mr Salmond’s court victory.
The Scottish Government procedure for handling complaints against current and former ministers states in paragraph 10 that the investigating officer “will have had no prior involvement with any aspect of the matter being raised”.
But Ms MacKinnon claimed the procedure had gone through a drafting process and was “open to interpretation”.
She also said she was “shocked” when the Scottish Government lost the civil case and as an experienced HR professional she had “no doubt” at the time that she was the right person to be investigating officer.
Scottish Government lawyers had been aware of her prior involvement with the complainers throughout the process, Ms Mackinnon added.
Mr Cole-Hamilton asked Ms Mackinnon if there was now “sufficient guidance” behind paragraph 10 of the procedure to ensure it couldn’t be interpreted differently again.
Ms Mackinnon answered: “Not yet”.
‘A half-million-pound mistake’
Later Mr Cole-Hamilton asked Ms Allison a similar question, saying: “This was a half-million-pound mistake that was made. We’ve just learned from Judith Mackinnon that two years after that case collapsed the policy is still live and still open to the misinterpretation that led to the judicial review’s collapse.
“Has there been, in your experience, any attempt in the last two years, other than the Dunlop review, to take remedial action on, particularly, paragraph 10 of the procedure?”
Ms Allison answered by saying she wasn’t aware of any.
After the session had ended, Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “Confirmation that the government is still operating with the same flawed policy is frankly astonishing.
“It’s blindingly obvious that this should have been sorted out a long time ago. The public purse has been left knowingly exposed.
“The public has already lost more than £500,000 on a legal challenge over a mismanaged inquiry and now we find that policy is still in operation and is risking future public funds.
“The government appears to have failed to learn basic lessons from this half-million-pound mistake.”