Politics

Nicola Sturgeon to rewrite flawed ministerial complaints process introduced by John Swinney



THE Scottish Government is to rewrite its bullying and harassment complaints procedure for ministers and former ministers just months after its launch.

The process was overhauled last year in the wake of the Alex Salmond affair, with a new system introduced by deputy FM John Swinney taking effect from February.

The changes were designed to offer more protection to civil servants complaining about their bosses, with investigations undertaken by outside experts not fellow officials.

However Nicola Sturgeon today said it would be changed after opposition parties warned it was excessively secretive, with findings against ministers withheld from the public.

At FMQs, the First Minister admitted she was “not comfortable” with that aspect, and she had taken advice to see if findings could be published in spite of data protection laws.

She said the Scottish Ministerial Code and complaints process would now be changed to ensure findings could be made public, but only those related to future cases.

The changes will not apply retrospectively to past investigations, including the results of bullying probes into former SNP cabinet secretary Fergus Ewing.

Labour said that was “convenient”.

Ms Sturgeon was speaking after being quizzed about the SNP’s response to a Commons watchdog upholding a sexual harassment complaint against Glasgow North MP Patrick Grady, who made an unwanted advance to a young male SNP staffer in a pub in 2016.

Ms Sturgeon said the findings were “of course published, as is right and proper”.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar asked why it was not equally right and proper for the outcomes of harassment complaints against Scottish ministers to be published.

“Do the Scottish people not deserve the same transparency?” he asked her.

Ms Sturgeon said: “I do think that people deserve transparency, and I am grateful to Anas Sarwar for raising the matter, because it gives me the opportunity to update members on what I said when he last raised the issue with me.

“It is absolutely the case that we are limited in what we can publish by legal requirements on data protection and confidentiality issues. 

“That is not a situation that I am comfortable with. I was not comfortable with it – as people could probably see – when I answered questions the last time that I was asked about it.

“As a result of that, I sought further advice. I asked for advice on whether, in the future, there would be ways of making it possible for us to report publicly the outcome of complaints involving ministers and whether there was a way of doing that without breaching the legal requirements that I have referred to. 

“The advice that I have now, which I have only very recently had, is that, although we cannot apply this retrospectively, there is a way to do that in relation to future complaints. 

“I can confirm to the chamber that that will involve changes to the ministerial code and probably also to the complaints procedure that is in place. Work is now under way to make the necessary changes to facilitate that happening in the future.”

Mr Sarwar said it was “convenient” that past probes would not be covered, despite legal experts saying there was no reason why such changes could not apply retrospectively.

He said: “There is no case for hiding behind GDPR [EU data law] here. No one is asking her to publish personal details of the victim. It is perfectly reasonable to ask the Scottish Government to make clear the outcome of investigations of Scottish ministers.

“A pattern has emerged when it comes to the SNP: close ranks, do as little as you can and hope that the difficult questions go away.” 

Ms Sturgeon replied: “Nobody has said that it is more important to protect the SNP than it is to protect the victim. I think that I have made my view very clear that support for victims of sexual harassment must come first. 

“I have to rely on the advice that I get as the First Minister, and that advice is clear about retrospective situations. 

“However, I was not prepared to accept that for the future without challenge, which is why I sought further advice.

“It is why I asked for advice on the ways in which we could be consistent with our legal obligations but also with what I believe is the important obligation of transparency. 

“That is why we will move forward now to make necessary changes to the ministerial code and to the procedure, to allow information to be published in the future.” 

Her official spokesman was later unable to say when the changes would be made, or why past findings could not be released, given the law would not be changing.  

He was also unable to say why the FM had only recently become uncomfortable with the complaints process when her deputy had worked on it “under her nose” for months.

Mr Salmond, the former First Minister, was investigated under a complaints system drawn up in 2017 amid the #MeToo phenomenon. It was used to investigate two complaints of sexual misconduct against him related to his time in Bute House.

He took the Scottish Government to court, showing the process had been unlawful, unfair and tainted by apparent bias, leaving taxpayers with a £512,000 bill towards his costs.

He was subsequently charged with multiple counts of sexul assault and acquitted on all of them at the High Court in Edinburgh in 2020.




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