Civil servants may have been reluctant to file formal complaints about “unacceptable behaviour” from ministers because of a fear of “hostile comment” from media and politicians, a former permanent secretary has claimed.
Sir John Elvidge, who held the position between 2003 and 2010, said in his written evidence to a Holyrood committee investigating the handling of harassment claims against former first minister Alex Salmond that civil servants also “tended not to interpret as bullying any behaviours” from ministers which they thought were the result of stress.
The result, Elvidge said, was that “ministers did not experience the kind of feedback about their behaviours which might occur in other working environments”.
Elvidge made his comments in a letter to the committee, published after current permanent secretary Leslie Evans, appeared as the first witness before the committee.
The committee was set up to investigate what went wrong with a Scottish Government probe into allegations about the behaviour of Salmond during his time as first minister.
Salmond successfully sued the Scottish Government over the probe, which the Court of Session found to be “procedurally unfair” and “tainted with apparent bias” after the government was found to have breached its own guidelines by appointing an investigating officer who had “prior involvement” with the case.
The Scottish Government had to pay over £500,000 in costs to Salmond as a result.
Elvidge also spoke of the lack of training and experience most politicians had, particularly in the early days of the Scottish Parliament.
He said that devolution presented an “intensification” of a pre-existing issue for politicians, which is that “they receive little or no preparation or training” for ministerial roles.
He said: “With only a very small number of exceptions, those appointed as ministers post devolution had no prior experience of central government on which to draw.”
This would often add to feelings of stress among senior politicians, he said.
In addition to the respect civil servants in general had for ministers, Elvidge said, they would also develop an “empathetic understanding” of the stresses ministers felt, which lead to “restraint” when dealing with “personal criticism”.
He said: “Consequently, some civil servants tended not to interpret as bullying any behaviours which they saw as a response to that stress, if an individual minister did not display those behaviours at other times.
“In combination with the strong cultural understanding that civil servants should exercise restraint in responding to personal criticism by ministers, this tended to have the effect that ministers did not experience the kind of feedback about their behaviours which might occur in other working environments.”
Elvidge also noted that civil servants worked within a “wider context” in which people in politics and the media sometimes expressed “encouragement and support” for ministers accused of bullying.
This “may well have affected” civil servants readiness to make formal complaints, he added.
Elvidge said: “Although these occurrences may be the exception rather than the rule, this may have led civil servants to feel that complaints of bullying might be the subject of hostile comment suggesting that aggressive behaviour by ministers was necessary to secure progress.
“While my experience has not been that this led civil servants to withhold concerns from their colleagues and immediate managers, it may well have affected their readiness to make formal complaints, even where their managers sought to reassure them that such complaints would be handled in a way which sought to protect complainants and to avoid repetition of unacceptable behaviour.”
Ailean Beaton is a journalist for CSW's sister title Holyrood magazine, where a version of this article first appeared.