17:04, January 08 271 0 theguardian.com

2019-01-08 17:04:08
Sturgeon defends handling of Salmond sexual harassment case

Nicola Sturgeon has defended her government’s handling of sexual harassment claims against Alex Salmond after its investigation was thrown out in court.

In a humiliating climbdown, the Scottish government admitted in court on Tuesday that an inquiry it launched last January into harassment allegations against the former Scottish first minister was unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”.

Lord Pentland, a judge sitting at the specially convened hearing in the court of session in Edinburgh, struck down the government’s findings and ordered ministers to pay all Salmond’s costs.

It emerged in August that senior Scottish government officials had investigated allegations against Salmond by two female civil servants and had then passed on its dossier to Police Scotland, which has since launched a separate criminal inquiry into the allegations.

Salmond quickly launched a legal challenge, and in an unexpected admission on Tuesday the Scottish government accepted a key part of the process was mishandled, invalidating its entire investigation.

It had breached its own procedures by appointing an official, Judith MacKinnon, to conduct an apparently independent investigation even though she had already met and counselled both complainants.

Salmond said he had been vindicated by the admission and called for the permanent secretary Leslie Evans, Scotland’s chief civil servant, to resign.

The Scottish government’s admission of fault was “an abject surrender,” Salmond said. Evans, he added, was responsible for that failure and for all her officials’ decisions and “should consider her position,” he said.

In an emergency statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon rejected Salmond’s demands for Evans to stand down. The first minister denied claims from Salmond’s lawyers that MacKinnon was guilty of coaching the complainants.

MacKinnon had given them “entirely legitimate” welfare advice and counselling, Sturgeon said. That gave the impression of partiality, which undermined the entire case. Even so, she said, “the Scottish government is confident that in all other respects clear, the procedure which was followed was otherwise fair to all concerned.

“[It] is important to note that as a simple matter of fact today’s settlement has no implications one way or the other for the substance of the complaints or for the credibility of the complainants.”

Sturgeon also revealed that she had not spoken to her former mentor and close friend for nearly six months, implying their relationship had broken down after the controversy. She told MSPs Salmond had lobbied her five times last year over the case, three times in person and twice by telephone. Each time she had said she was unable to intervene.

Sturgeon said Evans had apologised to both women. They had been badly let down by the outcome of the case, the first minister said, which was deeply regrettable.

“They had every right to expect the process to be robust and beyond reproach in every aspect of it,” she said. It was essential, she added, the complaints procedure should be seen to be independent and robust even when powerful people are accused.

The court of session had earlier heard a detailed attack on the Scottish government’s handling of the complaints at the very start of the process by Salmond’s lawyer, Ronnie Clancy QC.

The Scottish government claimed last August the complaints were first made in January 2018. But Clancy told Pentland that MacKinnon and three other civil servants, including Evans, had become aware of the allegations from Miss A and Miss B in November 2017, two months before their formal complaints were lodged.

Clancy said MacKinnon had met the two women at the same time as she had been copied into a series of draft versions of the Scottish government’s new ministerial complaints code in November 2017, as had Evans and MacKinnon’s boss, the Scottish government’s director of people, Nicola Richards.

Paragraph 10 of those drafts and the final code published in December 2017 made clear that an investigating officer would have had “no prior involvement with any aspect of the matter being raised”.

Clancy said those contacts were clear evidence that the process was not fair or independent. Those contacts “concerned the substance of their complaints, the evidence which was said to support those complaints, the circumstances under which the complaints arose and the manner in which the complainers – as was explained to them – could go on to make formal complaints”.

Evans, in a statement issued soon after the hearing ended, denied there had been any deliberate bias or coaching. But significantly, she did not challenge Clancy’s timeline or his allegations she knew in December 2017 about the paragraph 10 conditions disbarring officials who had prior knowledge of a complaint.

She said the full picture about MacKinnon’s contacts with the complainers only became clear in December 2018 after additional papers were released after a court order, for which Evans apologised. She said she had ordered an internal review of that sole issue.

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