Investigation of Complaints (Publication)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 23rd June 2022.

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Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

2. Last week, an investigation in the United Kingdom Parliament was made public, and it concluded that a senior Scottish National Party MP was guilty of making an unwanted sexual advance to a teenage member of staff. In response to Douglas Ross, the First Minister has just said that it was right and proper that those investigations were published.

More than a month ago, I asked the First Minister to make public the outcome of investigations against ministers in her own Government. She refused, instead claiming that it could not be revealed due to the general data protection regulation. That was despite the SNP rightly demanding the publication of investigations into Priti Patel. Those investigations were made public, and the outcome of the investigation into Patrick Grady was made public by the UK Parliament. Why will the First Minister not make public the outcomes of investigations by the Scottish Government into the conduct of Scottish ministers? Do the Scottish people not deserve the same transparency?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

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.

What I said in the chamber then is true: 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.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

I welcome that response from the First Minister, but it is convenient that the response talks about future investigations and not previous ones.

Let us take the advice of Nick McKerrell, a law lecturer at the University of Glasgow, who said in response to this issue:

“As public officials ministers would expect all their activity and decisions to be open to scrutiny. Even in the realm of employment law, this would be the case”.

Clearly, legal experts believe—and, as the First Minister has a law degree and used to be a solicitor, she should know—that there is no case for hiding behind GDPR 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. On Sunday, Angus Robertson described an SNP member of Parliament making unwanted sexual advances towards a teenager as not “career ending”. We heard a leaked recording in which SNP MPs were cheering and applauding Ian Blackford’s call for them to rally round Patrick Grady. The SNP chief whip then threatened legal action against whistleblowers. There is support for the perpetrator and no support for the victim.

First Minister, do you agree with Ian Blackford and your SNP MPs? Do you agree with the words of Angus Robertson? Do you agree with your SNP chief whip that it is more important to protect the SNP than it is to protect the victim?

The First Minister:

Nobody has said that it is more important to protect the SNP than it is to protect the victim. I think that, today, I have made my view very clear that support for victims of sexual harassment must come first. If that does not happen, and if a victim feels that they have not been supported, the obligation is on the organisation—in this case, that is the SNP—to reflect on that and not somehow to suggest that it is the victim who is at fault. I could not be clearer about that.

I want to have the conversation directly with the victim in this case, to make sure that I have as deep an understanding as possible of the exact experience in this case, so that I can reflect on what changes are needed. I do not in any way shy away from that.

In relation to the wider issue, yes, I do have a law degree. Not only that, Nick McKerrell and I were in the same class at Glasgow university when we studied law. He obviously has a wealth of expertise, but 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.

I think that it is important in any situation like this that somebody in my position takes these things seriously. I am doing that, and I will make whatever changes are necessary to get to a position for my party and my Government whereby we live up to the standards that all of us expect. I think that every organisation, including all political parties, has an obligation to do likewise.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

I can only imagine Nicola Sturgeon’s response if the Tories were making the same defence of Priti Patel, in terms of her allegations, as she is making of the Scottish ministers in this Parliament.

The Patrick Grady incident happened six years ago and only now is there talk of change. In those six years, Patrick Grady has been an SNP candidate twice, he has been promoted to chief whip and he actually led a debate on harassment while being investigated for harassment.

It has taken the victim going to the press for the First Minister to talk about taking action—an all-too-familiar story when it comes to the SNP. After 15 years in government, there is a culture of secrecy and cover-up at the heart of this Government. This is a First Minister who is unforgiving when it comes to her opponents or anyone who disagrees with her, but who expects forgiveness from everyone else.

In 2002, Nicola Sturgeon said of the then Government that it had been in power for so long that it no longer thought that it was accountable to anybody. There could be no better description of this Government. Why does Nicola Sturgeon believe that there is one standard for her and another standard for everyone else?

The First Minister:

The reality is that I do not. Of course, how long any party remains in government in Scotland, the UK or any country—well, most other countries—in the world is entirely down to the electorate. That will be true of my Government, just as it is true of any other Government in the UK.

I just do not think that what Anas Sarwar describes as a pattern is in any way substantiated. I have answered questions in the chamber in relation to other cases, and I have been absolutely clear that I would not brush things under the carpet or be defensive when it came to reflecting on and facing up to changes.

I refused to brush things under the carpet when allegations were made about somebody who was closer to me in politics than anybody else had been. I was subjected to rigorous investigations. Many members in the chamber talked about it being career ending for me. Would I do anything differently? Obviously, I would learn lessons from that process, based on everything that we know about it, but would I change the judgment that I made that it is important not to brush these things under the carpet but to face up to them? No, I would not.

Perhaps this is what distinguishes me from some other politicians in some other places, but I am not going to stand here and defend the indefensible. If things are wrong and represent failures in processes, I will take the action to put them right, just as the Scottish Government did when the issues were raised about the Scottish Government. I will make sure that that happens with the SNP as well.