Scottish Government perm sec Leslie Evans has written to MSPs stressing her willingness to give evidence on the issue of whether female civil servants were advised not to be alone in the company of former first minister Alex Salmond.
The move follows controversy that resulted from her evidence to a parliamentary inquiry into the handling of harassment complaints when the inquiry chair ruled out the line of questioning.
Evans was the first to give evidence to the inquiry in person. But last week she declined to comment when asked by Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser about claims made during a court case against Salmond that there had been a policy that female civil servants should not work alone with him.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross subsequently wrote to UK civil service head Sir Mark Sedwill, suggesting that Evans may have broken the Civil Service Code in refusing to answer the question.
In a just-published follow-up letter to the committee, which is chaired by the SNP’s Linda Fabiani, Evans stresses that she is “very willing” to address guidance given to staff in relation to meeting with Salmond.
“I thought it would also be useful to take this opportunity, in the light of extensive media coverage, to offer a comment in relation to my response to Mr Fraser’s question on whether ‘female civil servants were advised not to be alone in the company of the former first minister’ and your decision to disallow that question,” she said.
“I fully appreciate you will have had reasons, based on the committee’s remit and the various legal restrictions in place, for disallowing that line of questioning.
“However, I would like to make clear that – contrary to some media reports – I am very willing to write to the committee to address this issue.”
Evans’ three page letter also dealt with timescales that the perm sec referred to in last week’s session and acknowledged that the Scottish Government website had wrongly suggested that the harassment procedure had been published internally in December 2017 when the real publication had taken place in February 2018.
The committee’s inquiry is closely linked to allegations of sexual harassment made against former first minister Alex Salmond shortly after the Scottish Government harassment policy was introduced.
The Scottish Government had to pay around £512,000 in costs after its investigation of complaints was found to be unlawful at a judicial review brought by Salmond.
Following last week’s hearing, a cross-party group of three MSPs from the committee wrote to convenor Fabiani challenging her interpretation of the committee’s remit.
Conservative Fraser, Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton and Labour MSP Jackie Baillie told her they were “taken aback that you were so vociferous in your opposition to this line of questioning” and said questions about informal arrangements as well as formal sexual harassment procedures were vital to the committee’s work.
The letter said: “Several members have stated on repeated occasions, in preparatory meetings of the committee, that an understanding of the culture that existed in the organisation and how concerns were dealt with informally before they became subject to formal procedure was essential to our committee’s work.
“At no point did you or any other committee member dissent from that view.”
Salmond’s judicial review success was separate to a police investigation that resulted in criminal charges being brought against him.
In March this year, the former SNP leader was cleared of 13 sexual offence charges at the High Court in Edinburgh. An extra count was found not proven.
The charges were brought in relation to complaints by nine women who had been working for either the Scottish Government or the SNP at the time Salmond was first minister.