The Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond and the following judicial review was “significantly flawed”, MSPs have ruled.
The cross-party inquiry was set up after a successful judicial review by Salmond resulted in the Scottish Government’s investigation being ruled unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias” in 2019.
Former first minister Salmond was awarded a maximum payout of £512,250 after the government conceded the case a week before it was due to be heard.
The committee voted by five to four along party lines that it was misled by Nicola Sturgeon and raised a number of doubts about her evidence.
Members said they found 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”.
The report 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 committee also found a “fundamental contradiction” in her evidence on whether she agreed to intervene in a Scottish Government investigation into complaints by two woman against the former first minister.
It said that, in a meeting at her Glasgow home on April 2, 2018, Sturgeon “did in fact leave Mr Salmond with the impression that she would, if necessary, intervene”.
The report – in a section contested by the four SNP MSPs on the committee – continued: “Her written evidence is therefore an inaccurate account of what happened, and she has misled the committee on this matter.”
However, the committee said independent adviser James Hamilton was the best person to decide if the ministerial code had been broken.
Mr Hamilton’s report cleared Sturgeon of an ethics code breach on Monday.
Speaking outside her home on Tuesday morning, the First Minister said her thoughts were with the thousands of families who’d lost a loved one during the pandemic, as the nation marks a year since the first lockdown.
Opposition leaders at Holyrood said Sturgeon had misled parliament, with the Scottish Conservatives tabling a motion of no confidence in her.
That vote is due to take place on Tuesday, but with the Scottish Greens backing Sturgeon is seems certain to fail.
‘Women badly let down’
Committee convener Linda Fabiani apologised to the women who made complaints of sexual harassment and criticised MSPs she accused of leaking findings before the report was published.
She 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.
“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.”
‘Frustrated by delays’
MSPs on the committee claimed their scrutiny had been “significantly impacted by the delays in the provision of information from the Scottish Government and by its constant refusal to release legal advice”.
The report said: “This is an unacceptable position for a parliamentary committee to find itself in when trying to scrutinise the Scottish Government, particularly when both the First Minister and the Permanent Secretary stated there would be full co-operation with the inquiry.”
The MSPs were also “frustrated that the former first minister [Salmond], in common with the Scottish Government, repeatedly missed deadlines set for the submission of evidence”.
The report said: “The actions of both the Scottish Government and the former first minister have given the appearance that only information and documentation that would advance a particular position has been willingly given, leaving the committee to repeatedly ask for the information it was in fact seeking.”
It also revealed that on “multiple occasions” Salmond sent documents directly to MSPs on the committee, rather than using a document handling process that had been established, to try to ensure the identity of the two women complainers was not revealed.
“Given the focus that the committee has had on confidentiality, this is a very serious situation,” the report stated.
Scottish Government response
Deputy First Minister John Swinney: “I welcome the report of the committee, which, alongside the independent report produced by James Hamilton and externally led review by Laura Dunlop QC, will assist the Scottish Government’s in learning lessons for the future.
“I also welcome the committee’s acknowledgement that the Scottish Government was motivated by doing the right thing – creating a culture and procedure for investigating any claims of harassment.
“I agree with the committee’s finding that James Hamilton’s report is the most appropriate place to address the question of whether or not the First Minister breached the ministerial code. He found there was no breach.
“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.
“Together, all three reports highlight a range of important issues and provide the basis for improvement work which 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.”
Scottish Conservative MSP and committee member Murdo Fraser: “As James Hamilton said yesterday, it is ‘for the Scottish Parliament to decide whether they were in fact misled’.
“The committee verdict is in – Nicola Sturgeon misled parliament and the public.
“If she ploughs on regardless, as she did against the advice of lawyers in the doomed Alex Salmond judicial review case, the First Minister will leave the country scarred by the most bitter divisions.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
Scottish Labour deputy leader and committee member Jackie Baillie: “This report makes for sober reading. Never in my 22 years in parliament have I witnessed a report such as this, which details the catastrophic failings of the Scottish Government on a matter of the utmost seriousness and sensitivity. Despite the obstruction of the Scottish Government, the committee has managed to get beyond its veil of secrecy.
“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.
“The Scottish Government still does not have a robust and functioning harassment complaints procedure and women continue to be let down. There is an urgent need for reform to ensure that the complaints procedure is fit for purpose and lawful.
”The Scottish Government’s determination to plough on defending a judicial review, when the prospects of success were minimal, was irresponsible and cost the public more than £500,000.
“We also believe the First Minister has misled the committee about whether she would intervene, following her meeting with Alex Salmond on April 2, an act which is tantamount to misleading the parliament.
“The Hamilton report may have exonerated the First Minister of breaching the ministerial code, but the catastrophic and myriad failings this committee inquiry has revealed have called into question her judgement.”