MSPs slammed for ‘inappropriate’ treatment of civil servants in Salmond probe

Politicians failing to apply same “quasi-judicial approach” expected of officials to their own behaviour, union chief says
Former first minister Alex Salmond outside court

By Jim Dunton

19 Nov 2020

Members of the Scottish Parliament committee probing the handling of harassment complaints against former first minister Alex Salmond are subjecting civil servants to “inappropriate” treatment, a union leader has warned.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said that in addition to making unreasonable demands of witnesses giving evidence to the inquiry, some committee members were also using social media to share negative press coverage of civil servants’ appearances.

Penman, whose union represents senior civil servants, expressed his concerns in a letter to MSP Linda Fabiani, the convener of Holyrood’s Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints.

The committee is probing the development of a procedure to investigate complaints against ministers and former ministers, which began in 2017 and was subsequently used against Salmond. The former SNP leader successfully challenged the process at the Court of Session in Edinburgh in 2019 and secured a £512,000 payout from the Scottish Government.

In his letter to Fabiani, Penman said the degree of scrutiny that civil servants were being subjected to went “beyond the scope” of a parliamentary committee and threatened civil service impartiality. 

“The committee has asked witnesses appearing to swear an oath and in doing so are operating in a semi-judicial capacity,” Penman said.

“This in itself requires witnesses to respond with additional care to questions which can sometimes be clarified or best explained in follow up.

“Where witnesses have made clear to committee that this is their intention, the response of committee members on some occasions has fallen short of our expectation of an inquiry operating in this capacity.”

Penman said that often witnesses were being asked about events that took place a “considerable” length of time ago, but when they said they did not recall particular information or would have to check facts they had been accused of having “selective memory”.

“These comments, for public consumption, fall below the standards civil servants can rightly expect from a parliamentary committee,” he said.

“Our understanding of the operations of a committee who ask witnesses to swear an oath is that members of that committee will ask question in an impartial factual manner to gather evidence and provide clarity on evidence. 

“However, it is clear that members of the committee frequently offer personal opinion, seek to make political points or personal remarks, including when purporting to summarise evidence  – as I experienced myself when I gave evidence  – and have misquoted or embellished a response on official record made by one witness when questioning another witness.”

Penman said MSPs on the committee were essentially failing to apply the same “quasi-judicial approach” they took with witnesses to themselves.

He said that other examples of improper activity on the part of committee members included naming officials below senior civil service level – or pushing witnesses to do so – when such individuals are protected from disclosure.

Outside of formal hearings, Penman said he was also concerned about committee members commenting on evidence in the media and retweeting press articles “that make derogatory comments about civil servants and their evidence”. 

Penman told Fabiani that the conduct of committee members fell “below the standards civil servants should expect of parliamentarians conducting an inquiry” and could “only damage the credibility of the process and any potential conclusion it may reach”.

Fabiani did not refer to Penman’s letter  –  which was dated 12 November  –  at this week’s committee session. However, she did remind members and witnesses to try and avoid naming officials below SCS level “wherever possible”.

Salmond’s successful judicial review against the Scottish Government 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.

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