Scottish Government announces new harassment complaints procedure

Reforms include creation of propriety and ethics team to maintain standards across the civil service
PA

The Scottish Government has announced a new complaints procedure in response to the issues around its handling of harassment complaints against former first minister Alex Salmond.

Setting out the plan, the government said it wanted to “embed a culture where bullying and harassment is not tolerated and where there is trust in how matters will be handled if things go wrong”.

A judicial review concluded that the handling of complaints made against Salmond by two women was “tainted by apparent bias” and the government paid out over £500,000 in costs.

This led to three reviews of aspects of the government’s handling of the process. Among the changes committed to by the Scottish Government is that an independent, external investigation procedure will be used in future where there are complaints against current or former government ministers.

The Scottish Government will also set up a propriety and ethics team to maintain standards across the civil service and it will improve how it uses, stores and retrieves information.

The plan comes as part of a single response to the three reviews of the Scottish Government’s handling of the Salmond case: Dunlop’s on the Scottish Government’s harassment complaints procedure, Hamilton’s report on whether the First Minister breached the ministerial code and the final report of the Scottish Parliament’s Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints.

The Scottish Government will report progress to parliament by the end of 2021.

It has also committed to continuing to engage with trade unions and staff, including those with lived experiences of bullying and harassment.

Alongside this response, the government has also published the outcomes of two internal initiatives: ‘A Review of Information Management in the Scottish Government’, on improving the robustness of and compliance with its document management and storage processes, and ‘Culture and Behaviours in the Context of Harassment Complaints: Key Lessons And Recommended Practice’, on the initiatives that exist within the Scottish Government to promote the values, culture and behaviours it wants to see across government.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “At the heart of the three reports are the complaints from two women who spoke of unacceptable behaviour in the course of performing their duties as civil servants.

“These complaints could not be ignored. Everyone should be able to expect a respectful and safe working environment.

“This is both a legal right and core to the values of the organisation.

“Our goal is to embed a culture where bullying and harassment is not tolerated and where there is trust in how matters will be handled if things go wrong.

“This work is informed by engagement with our recognised trade unions and by staff, including those with lived experiences of bullying and harassment.”

“We are determined to learn from and apply the insights from these reports to build a culture in government where concerns are addressed early, and where all those involved with a complaint have confidence and can engage constructively and fairly in the process.”

Commenting on the report, Scottish Labour deputy leader and former member of the Committee on the Scottish Government’s Handling of Harassment Complaints Jackie Baillie said: “Throughout the work of the committee it became apparent that the Scottish Government's processes for dealing with harassment complaints were simply not fit for purpose. 

“A great many people, particularly women, have already been failed by the government’s flawed procedures and for that they should be ashamed. 

“Today’s reports and the recommendations contained within them are welcome.

“It is right that the government learns from its mistakes and that an external procedure to deal with complaints against current and former ministers is put in place.”

But Baillie took issue with Scottish Government permanent secretary Leslie Evans, the head of the civil service in Scotland, overseeing the changes.

She added: “Given the several failings on the part of the permanent secretary, as revealed by the committee's work, it is simply wrong for her to have a leading role in the creation of the new process.

“Indeed, the committee concluded that the permanent secretary should consider her position.”

Responding to the announcement, the FDA national officer for Scotland Allan Sampson said it welcomed the commitment to establish an independent process for complaints about the behaviour of ministers and former ministers.

“This is a victory for all those working in Scottish Government, particularly those who have spoken out and fought to make it a better place to work even at the expense of their own careers,” he said.

“The commitment to an independent process is a significant and historic step forward, as the Scottish Government is the first government to commit to implementing an independent process for complaints against ministers. The FDA has been at the forefront of this campaign, including giving evidence to the Parliamentary Inquiry last year, and we have consistently argued that an independent process, free from political interference is the only effective and workable solution.”

He added that it is “fundamentally important for Scottish Government to recognise the hurt, and loss of trust and confidence experienced by civil servants”. This not only applies to those who have spoken out at a considerable personal cost, he said, but also those who have not felt able to raise their complaint and instead have suffered in silence.

“The announcement today is a significant step forward to repairing that trust but Scottish Government need to realise how let down staff have felt, and must make the implementation of the process their number one priority. It is a fundamental right that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect at work.
 
“We further welcome the establishment of a new propriety and ethics team, which will allow for dedicated advice and support for civil servants who have concerns, something the FDA has also long called for. The new team must help maintain standards of integrity and impartiality that civil servants hold dear, and support ethical government by speaking truth to power.”

Jenni Davidson is a journalist at CSW's sister title Holyrood, where a version of this story first appeared.

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