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Harassment inquiry: Women let down in ‘seriously flawed’ Scottish Government system

Former first minister Alex Salmond.
Former first minister Alex Salmond.

Women who complained about sexual harassment were badly let down with “serious flaws” and “catastrophic” decisions by the Scottish Government, a Holyrood inquiry has concluded.

MSPs set out a list of damning verdicts on the way allegations about former First Minister Alex Salmond were handled.

It comes one day after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was cleared of claims she breached the official government code of conduct over accounts of the saga she gave to parliament.

Some of Tuesday’s Holyrood report had already been leaked with claims MSPs split along party lines to suggest Ms Sturgeon misled parliament.

‘Women badly let down’

Committee convener Linda Fabiani 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.

“I am truly dismayed by the hurt some of the committee leaks will have caused them. I apologise to them unreservedly. This is not who we should be as a committee of this parliament.

Linda Fabiani MSP.

“Our inquiry was a chance to reflect on what went wrong with the Scottish Government processes and ensure that the failings these women experienced never happen again.

“There are undoubtedly some extremely serious findings in our report and it was clear to the committee that there were serious flaws made in the government’s application of its own process.

“The government must address these to ensure anyone who experiences sexual harassment has the confidence to come forward.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon giving evidence to the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints.

Complaints about Mr Salmond dated back to his time in office. Alarmed by the way it was being conducted, Mr Salmond took the government to a judicial review where a judge said it had been tainted by apparent bias and was “unlawful”. He was given substantial costs.

A special cross-party committee of MSPs was brought together to probe the mess and make recommendations.

Meanwhile, Mr Salmond was cleared of all charges at a separate criminal trial.

The Holyrood inquiry report is damning in its findings on the handling of the judicial review. The report states the government was responsible for an “entirely avoidable situation” that ended in an expensive legal challenge.

‘Seriously flawed’

It adds: “The Scottish Government’s handling of document disclosure during the judicial review proceedings was seriously flawed and it was this catastrophic failure to disclose documents and to allow statements to be made to the court that all documents had been disclosed when they had not been that led to the awarding of a high level of costs.”

On the government complaints procedure, MSPs said more time could have been taken to draft the guidance to provide more support. They called for an independent support service and system for reporting and investigating complaints.

Looking at the handling of complaints, the committee said the roles of the country’s top civil servant, currently Leslie Evans, “should have been seen as a risk”.

An independent probe led by Ireland’s former public prosecutor, James Hamilton, found on Monday that Ms Sturgeon had not breached the ministerial code. But it concluded parliament could determine if they were misled during the process.

She has misled the committee on this matter.”

Holyrood report

Tuesday’s Holyrood report confirms what was leaked last week. MSPs split along party lines in a majority vote relating to a meeting between Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon on April 2 2018. There are competing claims about whether Ms Sturgeon offered to intervene in the process.

“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,” the report states.

“This was corroborated by (solicitor) Duncan Hamilton who was also at the meeting. Her written evidence is therefore an inaccurate account of what happened, and she has misled the committee on this matter.”

The report also states: “The committee finds it hard to believe that the First Minister had no knowledge of any concerns about inappropriate behaviour on the part of Mr Salmond prior to November 2017. 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.”

Calls for another inquiry

Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser, who sits on the committee, called for another inquiry.

“It is time for someone to accept responsibility for letting women down, wasting more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money, and the abundance of false and misleading statements from senior government figures,” he said.

Murdo Fraser.

“At every turn, the committee was obstructed by the SNP’s attempts to shut down scrutiny and keep key evidence secret.

“We have managed to produce a strong report that uncovers a great deal of what went wrong. But to uncover all the details, a judge-led inquiry is now necessary.”

In a joint statement, SNP members on the committee criticised opposition members and claimed: “We fear conduct over several months of some members – their skewed focus, overt politicisation and lamentable disregard for complainers – will dissuade women from coming forward in the future. That is a matter of the deepest regret.”

‘A real, and damaging, impact’

Deputy First Minister John Swinney 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.

“Given the timing of the report it is not possible to respond fully and in detail, not least because the three reports have overlapping areas of interest, and some recommendations are in conflict with those in other reports.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney.

“Together, all three reports highlight a range of important issues and provide the basis for improvement work which will now be taken forward in consultation with others including the Parliament, Trades Unions, and those with lived experience.

“The Scottish Government will carefully consider the recommendations from the committee, alongside the other two review reports, in order to put improvements and an implementation plan in place.”