Harassment of civil servants a 'bigger problem' in Scottish Government than rest of UK, union chief says

Dave Penman tells MSPs dozens of staff in Scotland had complaints about ministers compared with "only a handful" in other nations
The comments were made during a parliamentary inquiry into the flawed investigation of former first minister Alex Salmond, pictured here at the High Court in Scotland. Photo: PA

By Jim Dunton

03 Sep 2020

Ministers in the Scottish Government have been the source of a disproportionately high level of complaints from senior civil servants, a union leader has told a parliamentary inquiry into the flawed investigation of former first minister Alex Salmond.

Anecdotal evidence suggested there had been a particular issue with complaints about ministerial conduct in the Scottish Government over the past 10 years, FDA general secretary Dave Penman told MSPs on the Scottish Government Committee on the Handling of Harassment Complaints.

The committee is examining the introduction of the Scottish Government policy that was used to investigate complaints against Salmond in 2018 – but which the former first minister successfully challenged at the Court of Session, costing the government more than £500,000.

Penman told MSPs the FDA had been made aware of around 30 people working for the Scottish Government who had voiced concerns about ministerial behaviour over the past decade. He said the figure compared with “only a handful” across the rest of the UK civil service. The latest Cabinet Office statistics show the Scottish Government had 21,110 staff at the end of March. The whole UK civil service headcount was 456,410.

Penman said the harassment cases in Scotland that the FDA was aware of related to “multiple ministers and multiple administrations”, which was why it had been vital that new harassment policy at the heart of the probe extended to both current and former ministers.

He told MSPs the Scottish Government had made a mistake in not making the complaints policy fully independent. “We we wouldn’t be here if we’d had a fully independent process,” he said.

Penman acknowledged that the Scottish Government was still the only part of government with a bespoke policy for dealing with harassment complaints against ministers. But he pointed out that it had focused on “solving a series of problems rather than stepping back and addressing the bigger problem”. 

He said the cases brought to the FDA’s attention suggested that the Scottish Government was not addressing workplace culture, accepted norms or patterns of behaviour. 

“When people raised a concern they would be the one that was moved, rather than addressing the broader problem,” he said.

Penman said he stood by the FDA stance that there was a “culture of fear” in the Scottish Government that left senior public servants unable to speak truth to power, and said that while the current harassment policy represented progress, it “obviously” did not have the confidence of staff.

“Political point-scoring is what influences how these issues are dealt with and this is why politicians should not have responsibility for marking their own homework,” he said.

Scottish Government permanent secretary Leslie Evans gave evidence to the committee last month at a session that sparked controversy when chair Linda Fabiani ruled out a line of questioning over whether female civil servants had ever been advised not to work alone with Salmond.

Former Scottish Government perm sec Sir John Elvidge last week wrote to the committee saying staff had been reluctant to complain about harassment they were subjected to by inexperienced and stressed ministers.

Although Alex Salmond’s challenge against the Scottish Government’s implementation of its harassment policy demonstrated it had been unfair in his case, Evans has stood by the principle of the policy and robustness of its creation. 

A separate police investigation into Salmond resulted in a trial at the High Court in Edinburgh, at which the former SNP leader was cleared of 13 sexual offence allegations. 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.

The Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government’s harassment policy continues. 

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