Civil servants to stop investigating complaints against Scottish ministers

·2 min read
<span>Photograph: REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

Scottish civil servants will be stripped of their role investigating complaints against government ministers after the controversy surrounding sexual harassment claims against Alex Salmond.

Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor as first minister, said on Monday her government had accepted it needed sweeping reforms to its handling of ministerial misconduct allegations and its ethics policies, after three independent reports criticised its policies.

That would include appointing an independent, outside investigator for complaints against serving and former ministers later this year; ensure no time bar on carrying out retrospective investigations; ensure complainers were properly supported by officials and setting an internal ethics team to ensure its policies were correct; and telling serving ministers they would remain accountable for their behaviour long after leaving office.

“Our goal is to embed a culture where bullying and harassment is not tolerated and where there is trust in how matters will be handled if things go wrong,” Sturgeon said.

The reforms follow separate inquiries into the Scottish government’s repeated failures in its investigations into historic harassment complaints against Salmond, first minister from 2007 to 2014.

Salmond was investigated over 11 “cases of concern” raised by two female officials, including alleged sexual assaults, in January 2018.

In August 2018, the internal inquiry upheld many of those complaints but in early 2019 a senior judge declared its findings unlawful after it emerged the senior investigator had had prior contact with both complainers.

In March 2020, Salmond was acquitted of 14 criminal charges of sexual assault after a high court trial. Those charges included three allegations made by the two complainers involved in the government inquiry; one involved a sexual assault with intent to rape.

While Sturgeon was cleared of misleading the Scottish parliament and of breaching the ministerial code, the three inquiries identified a series of failings, many of which were laid at the door of Leslie Evans, the permanent secretary, by a cross-party committee of MSPs.

They found the two complainers were insufficiently supported by the government; using the same official who had counselled the two complainers was a clear breach of process; that officials had significantly impeded the Holyrood investigation by failing to find and release key documents; and that Sturgeon was wrong to meet Salmond to discuss the internal inquiry.

MSPs were also highly critical of the government’s failure to update its harassment policy until now, despite the court’s findings in early 2019. The Holyrood committee heard there had been a “quite remarkable” number of bullying and misconduct complaints by Scottish government officials against ministers since Salmond took office.

The Scottish government confirmed officials were still investigating historic bullying complaints against Fergus Ewing, a former farming and environment minister who was sacked after the election. Ewing denies any wrongdoing.

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