Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints (Confidentiality)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 25th February 2021.

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Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

2. There was applause before I even started.

At the heart of the committee that was set up to consider the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints are two women who have been failed by the Government. The committee’s role is not to investigate the complaints but to understand what went wrong and why the women were failed, so that women can never be let down like that again.

I welcome the First Minister’s coming to the committee next week, but it is legitimate to explore some of the issues in the context of the ministerial code investigation that is being led by James Hamilton QC. One such issue concerns meetings that were held with Alex Salmond’s former chief of staff. Those meetings were the precursor to the discussion between Alex Salmond and the First Minister. I understand that, astonishingly, the identity of one of the original civil service complainants was revealed to the former chief of staff and then conveyed to Mr Salmond.

That is an extraordinary breach of confidentiality. On whose authority was contact initiated with Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff? On whose authority was the name of a complainant revealed? That action was certainly not about protecting the interests of the women involved. Did the First Minister authorise the contact? If not, who did?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I will answer all those questions in detail when I appear before the committee. It seems that Jackie Baillie is standing here, before I have had the opportunity to sit before the committee, and accepting at face value Alex Salmond’s account of all this. I do not accept Alex Salmond’s account of much of this, which is why, when I sit before the committee, I will go through in detail what actually happened and what did not happen. I think that that is the right and proper way of proceeding.

What I agree with Jackie Baillie on is that there are women at the heart of this—women whom I have been accused of hiding behind, when I am actually seeking to stand up for them. Their voices have been sidelined, their motives have been maligned and they have been accused of being conspirators in the whole process. Not only is that deeply unfair to the women concerned, I think that it is deeply unfair to the efforts—which I think most of us agree with—to create a culture in Scotland whereby women feel that they can come forward with complaints. I want the women to be at the heart of all these discussions.

I say to Jackie Baillie that accepting at face value the conspiracy theories and the account of the man whom the women accused of harassing them seems to me to be quite a strange way of supporting and standing up for those women.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

It is appropriate for the First Minister to come before this chamber and answer questions, because this matter, at its core, is about her judgment and her leadership. It is also, absolutely, about the women—the women who were failed by the Government’s botched handling of their complaints. Standing up for women takes more than warm words.

A complainant was named. That is not a conspiracy theory—a complainant was named. That is a fundamental breakdown in trust. It is beyond belief that anyone would tell the name of a complainant to the former chief of staff to Alex Salmond, which was then passed on to Mr Salmond. How on earth is that about protecting women? It is a gross breach of confidentiality.

Given the First Minister’s comments, in her daily Covid briefing yesterday, about Alex Salmond and his behaviour, why on earth did she repeatedly agree to meetings with him even after she knew about the serious allegations against him? How was that helping the women who had complained?

The First Minister:

Alex Salmond claimed that the name of a complainant was given. That is not the same thing as accepting that that is the case. Those are exactly the matters, along with many other matters, that I will have the opportunity to get into when I appear before the committee.

I will also explain why I met Alex Salmond and, crucially, what I did not do after I met him, which was to seek to intervene in the process or to, in any way, sweep the complaints under the carpet.

I heard Jackie Baillie give an interview some weeks ago—or perhaps it was longer ago than that. I think that it was when my written evidence had been published, in which I had set out that one of the things that Alex Salmond had asked me to do was to intervene to bring about a process of mediation. I declined to do that because I did not think it was appropriate for me to intervene. I heard Jackie Baillie in an interview seem to suggest that I should have done that—that I should have intervened to bring about a process of mediation.

Along the way here, I have faced accusations of collusion with Alex Salmond and of conspiracy against Alex Salmond. I hope that, by the time I get to the committee, the members will have made up their minds which one they are seeking to accuse me of. The fact of the matter is that neither of those things is true. When I became aware of the complaints, I declined to intervene because I thought it was important that a process happened.

For somebody in my position, on hearing what my predecessor, close colleague and friend of 30 years was accused of, perhaps the easier thing to have done—and perhaps what would have been done in days gone by—was to have swept the complaints under the carpet and not allowed them to be properly investigated. I opted not to do that. Whatever difficulties have happened since then, and whatever pain has been caused to lots of people in this process, I do not regret not sweeping the complaints under the carpet, because that was the right thing to do.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

There is an inconvenient fact here for the First Minister, and it is not what Alex Salmond claims—it is not about the conspiracy. It is the fact that the former chief of staff to Alex Salmond said that, in one of those meetings, the name of one of the civil service complainants was given to him.

Members:

Allegedly.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

It is interesting that the more noise there is from the Scottish National Party members, the more I appreciate the difficulties they are in.

Members:

Allegedly.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

There we go.

It is starting again. However, it is an inconvenient fact and it is extraordinary that that name was revealed.

This week, Scotland’s democratic institutions have been exposed in their inability to hold the Government to account. The Crown Office intervened with the Parliament, resulting in evidence being removed—evidence that any one of us can currently access on reputable news websites. We have a Government that has refused to co-operate, denying the committee access to the legal advice that the Government obtained for the judicial review, which cost the taxpayer £600,000. In addition, the rushed-through harassment policy lies on the shelf, gathering dust. It has not been used in the past three years at a time when there are more complaints against Nicola Sturgeon’s ministers than there were under her predecessor. We have seen, this week, that there is something rotten at the core of the SNP, and it is poisoning democratic institutions. This is not just about Alex Salmond, and it is not even just about the internal problems of the SNP: this is about the treatment of women in the future. So, what is the First Minister going to do to make it right?

The First Minister:

W hat is poisoning our democratic institutions, in my view, is politicians standing up and hurling assertions and accusations without a shred of evidence to back them up. That is something that all of us need to seriously reflect on.

I am not sure when she became the chief spokesperson for Alex Salmond, but it is interesting that Jackie Baillie stands here, in this chamber, and takes as gospel every claim that Alex Salmond makes. When Alex Salmond was standing here, she did not believe a single word that he said. So, why do we not allow all these claims—Alex Salmond’s tomorrow, mine next week—to be properly scrutinised by the committee? Hopefully, it will be able to do that, and then people can make up their own minds.

At the heart of this are women who came forward with complaints—first to the Scottish Government and later to the police, and the police independently investigated all of that. It was right that the Scottish Government put in place a process to allow complaints to be investigated. It was right that, when they came to light, before I knew about them, the Government did not sweep them under the carpet, albeit that the Government made a mistake. When I became aware, it was right, in my view, that I did not collude with Alex Salmond to make them go away or sweep them under the carpet. That may have led to difficulties—it certainly made Alex Salmond very angry with me; I think that that is self-evident—but it was the right thing to do.

Yes, we need to have a rigorous political debate, but, if we are to be a country in which women can come forward, then all of us need to respect the independent institutions, including the highly respected justice system, so that Scotland is a place where the culture says to women: “If you have been harassed, no matter how powerful the person who might have harassed you, you can come forward and your claims will be treated seriously.”