17:12, March 23 233 0 theguardian.com

2020-03-23 17:12:03
Salmond's victory in court leaves questions over role of SNP

Over nearly nine days of often contradictory and emotionally charged evidence, the jurors in Alex Salmond’s trial on 14 charges of sexual assault heard two conflicting accounts of the former first minister.

One version was of an often bad-tempered boss who drove his staff hard, with poor judgment about personal space. His defence advocate, Gordon Jackson QC, told the jury of nine women and six men that Salmond was flawed but not evil; he was certainly not a man guilty of criminality or an attempt to rape.

“This comes out of a political bubble with no real independent support of any kind,” Jackson said. Many of the charges smelled, he added, of political persecution. “This is a murky, murky world we live in,” he said. Salmond insisted some charges were “a fabrication from start to finish”.

The prosecution portrayed Salmond as a predator, who abused his power and authority to assault younger women, often at night in the seclusion of his Bute House official residence in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town.

“This case isn’t about a plot or political conspiracy,” Alex Prentice QC told them. “This is about a powerful man who abused his power to satisfy his sexual desires with impunity.”

In the event, the jury – reduced on Monday to 13 after two jury members were discharged, accepted Jackson’s account. In a verdict that sent shockwaves through the Scottish National party, they acquitted Salmond of every charge on majority verdicts. He had already been acquitted of a 10th sexual assault after the prosecution withdrew the charge earlier in the trial.

Speaking outside court on Monday, Salmond issued a thinly concealed warning to his former party and Nicola Sturgeon, his successor as first minister and party leader, that he planned to disclose more evidence in coming days and weeks.

“There was certain evidence I would like to have seen led in this trial but for a variety of reasons we weren’t able to do so,” he told the media. “At some point that information, that fact and that evidence will see the light of day.”

Salmond’s jubilant allies now believe a forthcoming Scottish parliament inquiry into the Scottish government’s botched handling of an internal investigation into two complaints against him by civil servants will dig deeper into the role played by Sturgeon’s staff and senior officials in that investigation, and the subsequent police inquiry.

He has now been exonerated by the jury of any crimes – but the parliamentary investigation could also be significantly expanded after the trial heard how complaints from several civil servants who raised concerns about Salmond’s behaviour were dealt with by their line managers and other senior officials.

The court heard that officials in Salmond’s office decided in 2013 and 2014 not to record or seek investigation of their complaints about his behaviour towards them. The women involved told the jury they felt humiliated and embarrassed, and feared making formal complaints would damage their careers or, one told the jury, that the matter would be “swept under the carpet”. They opted instead to do so off the record.

After a young junior official accused Salmond of forcing her on to a bed in December 2013 – a charge Salmond denied – senior civil servants in his private office decided among themselves not to allow female officials to work alone at night with him at Bute House, according to evidence.

That complainer, known as F because his accusers cannot be named for legal reasons, claimed at Salmond’s trial that he pinned her on a bed and forced his hands up her skirt. She said she did not report the full details of her allegations to her colleagues. Even so, the jury heard that one colleague in Salmond’s office told her the next day: “It could be a crime.” He told the court: “It gave me cause for concern that something serious had happened.”

Instead of an investigation, the jury heard that the officials and Salmond’s most senior aide brokered an apology from Salmond. Those officials told the court they felt F wanted the issue kept low-key, so were respecting her wishes. Salmond told the jury in fact he and F had fallen onto the bed in a “sleepy cuddle” after drinking a potent Chinese spirit while they worked. The jury acquitted him of alleged sexual assault with intent to rape.

After a further allegation about an incident at Bute House four months later, the same officials told the court they tried to reinforce the practice of not allowing female officials to work alone with Salmond at Bute House.

In that case, the court was told, another male civil servant received a distressed late-night text from a younger female colleague, G. She alleged in court that Salmond cornered her in his private sitting room and tried to kiss her after pressing her to drink limoncello with him, which she refused.

G said initially she felt “it was never an option” to report the incident internally or to the police. “I felt a huge responsibility to protect his reputation. [I] thought if I got into some sort of scandal with him it would lose the referendum,” she told the jury.

The court heard that a colleague persuaded G to complain informally but she remained deeply doubtful the process would work. She told the court that she had doubts about the competence of the civil service and feared, correctly, that Salmond would sue the government.

In August 2018 Salmond launched a judicial review against his former government after being told an internal civil service inquiry had upheld two sexual assault complaints against him – findings that were not ultimately allowed to stand. After quickly raising £100,000 via crowd-funding to help with his legal costs, he won that challenge in January 2019.

The Scottish government repeatedly told journalists in 2017, 2018 and 2019 that no complaints of sexual misconduct or bullying had been made against Salmond until two of these complainers – the legal term in Scotland for complainants – came forward in late 2017, after the #MeToo movement pushed ministers into announcing a zero-tolerance stance on sexual misconduct.

According to their testimony in court, none of the women were told their allegations could have been investigated under the Scottish government’s then uniquely far-reaching “fairness at work” procedures, which it introduced in autumn 2010.

That policy – the only one of its kind in the UK – specifically included misconduct by Scottish ministers, including first ministers. It committed the government “to dealing with staff grievances fairly, consistently, quickly and no one will be penalised for raising a complaint in good faith”.

Appendix 1 of the document set out “examples of unacceptable behaviour”, which included “inappropriate physical contact, advances or propositions” and “inappropriate questions about someone’s personal life or questions about someone’s sex life”.

That policy was originally drawn up to handle bullying or mistreatment complaints against civil servants but civil service unions insisted it was expanded to include ministers because of alleged bullying incidents involving Salmond himself.

Salmond’s trial heard repeated testimony from defence and prosecution witnesses that he had a fierce temper and was notorious for being aggressive and highly critical with officials he thought were underperforming.

Union sources and those with knowledge of Salmond’s conduct told the Guardian of instances of Salmond swearing at staff, throwing documents at them, and reducing aides to tears. Union sources acknowledge the policy was not written with sexual misconduct specifically in mind, but said it was clear the policy covered misconduct in its broadest sense.

Salmond told the jury he had signed off on the policy. It was also agreed by Nicola Sturgeon, then the deputy first minister, and Sir John Elvidge, then the permanent secretary of the Scottish government. Sturgeon agreed to be the arbiter of any complaints involving ministers, including allegations against Salmond.

Despite the fairness at work policy being in place at the time, one female civil servant, complainer B, told the jury she felt unable to complain after she claimed that he tried to force her into a kiss. “I think I would’ve suffered in my career as a result. I never saw anybody in a senior position in the Scottish government tackle the first minister about his behaviour,” she said.

Salmond was found not guilty of that allegation. A senior member of Salmond’s policy team at the time, Alex Bell, told the court last week he had been sent upstairs by two other colleagues to ensure she was safe because they had inadvertently left her alone with Salmond. Asked why he had gone up, Bell said: “To ensure that the welfare of my colleague was OK.” Their stance mirrored the policies followed three years later by Salmond’s private secretaries.

It took until late 2017 before these women felt confident to report these allegations, when Sturgeon and Scotland’s head civil servant, Leslie Evans, reacted to the #MeToo movement by introducing a tougher code of conduct that specifically included sexual misconduct. Crucially, it applied retrospectively to former ministers.

Two of the women who had felt unable to pursue complaints initially stepped forwards, triggering an internal Scottish government inquiry that upheld their complaints. That led the police to investigate, and resulted in Salmond being charged with 14 counts of sexual assault – but ultimately acquitted.