Leslie Evans, permanent secretary to the Scottish Government, has been reported to the head of the UK civil service for refusing to answer a question during a parliamentary inquiry into handling of complaints against former first minister Alex Salmond.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has written to Sir Mark Sedwill, suggesting that Evans may have broken the Civil Service Code in refusing to answer a question when giving evidence to the committee this week on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints.
Evans would not comment when asked by Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser on Tuesday 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.
Ross said: “Any reasonable person would accept there are valid questions to be asked about the claims that female civil servants couldn’t work alone with Alex Salmond.
“I have written to the head of the civil service for his input on Leslie Evans’ refusal to answer this question, as it could be a breach of the civil service code.
“A number of women were let down by unforgiveable process failures by the government, and Scottish taxpayers lost more than £500,000 that could have been spent on improving schools and hospitals.
“The Scottish public deserve answers. They won’t get the full truth if civil servants are allowed to evade scrutiny and the government refuses to release documents.”
After Evans declined to comment, the question was then blocked by committee convener Linda Fabiani. The SNP MSP said she was “not sure that that is entirely appropriate to what we are doing at this committee under its remit”, which was disputed by some other committee members.
The committe is conducting an inquiry into the handling of allegations of sexual harassment made against Salmond, which saw the Scottish Government pay around £512,000 in costs after its investigation of complaints was found to be unlawful at a judicial review.
A cross-party group of three MSPs from the committee has since written to Fabiani challenging her interpretation of the committee’s remit.
Fraser, Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton and Labour MSP Jackie Baillie told Fabiani 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.”
They added: “It is clear, both from the 2016 People Survey [an internal HR survey of Scottish Government staff] and from the submissions we have received from trade unions, that during that period when the procedure was created, there was little confidence in the formal complaints process amongst government staff.
“As such, it seems that ‘concerns’ as the permanent secretary described them, were commonly dealt with in an informal matter.
“We believe that an understanding of that reality is essential to our committee’s work going forward.”
Fraser has also tabled an urgent question to parliament to ask for further details of discussions between Evans and the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in November 2017 about an incident at Edinburgh Airport. The question comes after the perm sec mentioned in the committee on Tuesday that she had spoken to Sturgeon after staff raised concerns about Salmond contacting them in relation to the incident.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “In [this week's] committee session, the convener ruled that this specific line of questioning should not be pursued, and it would therefore be inappropriate for the permanent secretary to comment further at this time.
“However, the permanent secretary will be happy to write to the committee to address this issue if the convener wishes.”
Jenni Davidson is a journalist at CSW's sister title Holyrood, where this article first appeared.