The SNP is under pressure to explain the way it handled a complaint against ex-minister Mark McDonald amid claims the process was “dodgy and inappropriate”.
Fresh questions have been raised about the Aberdeen Donside MSP’s departure from government in 2017 because of evidence given to a Holyrood committee last week by SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.
Mr Murrell, who is married to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, insisted the party was “in charge of policing SNP complaints”, that it would not share details about them with another organisation unless it was a “clear act of criminality”, and it did not inform government civil servants or special advisers about specific cases in the autumn of 2017.
The statements appeared to be at odds with what Mr McDonald has said in the past about the way his case was handled, initially by government post-holders rather than SNP officials.
He has said previously that the first time he was made aware of a direct complaint about him was the day before he resigned, during a meeting with government civil servant Liz Lloyd, the first minister’s chief of staff, on November 3 2017.
The day before that meeting, Mr McDonald was told there had been “chatter” about him in relation to the MeToo movement during talks with Ms Lloyd and Deputy First Minister John Swinney.
Mr Murrell suggested last week that only SNP office-bearers would normally deal with a complaint, and that it would not be routinely passed onto another organisation, such as the government, therefore it is now unclear what complaint Ms Lloyd was referring to during her discussions with Mr McDonald.
It was reported around the time of his resignation, and stated during official inquiries afterwards, that a complaint about Mr McDonald had been made to the SNP, not the government.
It is understood that the MSP himself is unaware of allegations being made about him to any organisation other than the party, before his ministerial resignation.
However, the SNP has repeatedly refused to explain the process since Mr Murrell’s evidence.
Party sources suggested that the meetings in the days before Mr McDonald’s resignation did not deal with a complaint received by the SNP, and that it did not ask Ms Lloyd or Mr Swinney to address allegations it had received. However, the party has not responded to requests for clarification.
The confusion follows claims that during Mr Murrell’s testimony last week he contradicted Ms Sturgeon’s evidence to the committee investigating the government’s botched handling of allegations against former first minister Alex Salmond.
Liberal Democrat committee member Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “This looks like the SNP has been caught out yet again for dodgy and inappropriate handling of very serious complaints.
“When it comes to harassment complaints of any kind about people in positions of power, for the SNP, the lines between party and civil service become very blurred.
“A number of sources have suggested that Liz Lloyd made the approach to Mark McDonald, yet she is a civil servant, albeit a special adviser.
“And as such her role is improper for the handling of SNP staffing complaints.”
Suspended from SNP
An SNP spokesman said: “Anyone who considers that they have been subject to sexual harassment has the right to expect that complaints will be considered confidentially and with the utmost care and seriousness.
“Mark McDonald was suspended from the SNP on November 16 2017, and an independent investigation launched.
“The findings led him to resign from the SNP to avoid a party disciplinary hearing, and he was subsequently suspended from parliament for breaches of the MSP code of conduct including sexual harassment.”
If any separate complaint had been made to the Scottish Government about Mr McDonald at the time, it is understood a formal process would have been launched, and the situation would currently fall within the remit of the committee investigating the handling of claims against Mr Salmond.
Asked if the government had received a complaint about Mr McDonald before his resignation, a spokesman said only: “On November 4 2017, Mr McDonald resigned his ministerial post following allegations made from outside the Scottish Government about his personal conduct.”
Mr McDonald, who declined to comment, worked as a parliamentary liaison officer to Mr Salmond, and also to Mr Swinney, before being appointed as childcare and early years minister in May 2016.
He was suspended from Holyrood for a month in 2018 after a standards watchdog ruled that he sent Twitter messages to a woman in September 2016 that breached the code of conduct by creating an “intimidating, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” for the woman, and that they “involved sexual harassment”.
The MSP, who has said he will not seek re-election next year, apologised for his behaviour but has also since accused former colleagues of trying to “grind him into the ground” in the aftermath, leaving him suicidal.
We previously reported that evidence to the Salmond inquiry had led to allies of Mr McDonald concluding that he was “thrown under a bus” in November 2017 to justify the creation of a Scottish Government policy that would be used against Mr Salmond.