Sexual Harassment (Support for Victims)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 23rd June 2022.

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Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

1. Does the First Minister agree that every victim of sexual harassment should be fully supported?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Yes, I do. I believe that very strongly. When a victim of sexual harassment considers that that has not been the case, whatever organisation is involved should reflect very seriously on that and make any necessary changes. That is how I intend to proceed regarding issues relating to the Scottish National Party.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

If everything that the First Minister has just said is true and she really believes that victims of sexual harassment should be fully supported, why has Patrick Grady, who is one of her members of the United Kingdom Parliament, and who has been found guilty of sexual harassment, still got the backing of the First Minister?

The First Minister:

I have already been clear about that issue and I am certainly very willing to be so again today.

Patrick Grady’s behaviour was wrong. I have said it before and I will repeat it: I am very sorry that a member of the Westminster SNP group staff was subjected to an unwanted sexual advance. It should not have happened. It is important to be very clear about that.

Patrick Grady’s behaviour was investigated by an independent process—an independent process that all parties in the House of Commons are signed up to. The findings of that independent process were, of course, published, as is right and proper, and a sanction was imposed—a sanction that was recommended by that independent process and replicated by the SNP Westminster group.

In this situation, there is also a victim who clearly feels that they were not properly supported in that process. Indeed, the victim in the case believes that the process exacerbated the trauma that they experienced. It is absolutely incumbent on any organisation that is in that position to take views of that nature very seriously. As I have said before, and as I have said again today, that is a matter that the SNP must and will reflect on.

Ian Blackford, who is the leader of our group at Westminster, has already confirmed that there will be an external review of the Westminster group processes. I think that that, too, is right and proper.

The last thing that I will say, Presiding Officer, is this: I take these issues very seriously. It is incumbent on me to do so. However, the issues are not unique to the SNP. All parties have faced such issues and all parties have, at times, been criticised for their handling of them. We all have lessons to learn. Obviously, I am only responsible—in a party-political sense—for the SNP, but all of us, in the society that we live in, have lessons to learn and it is incumbent on all of us to do so. For my part, I am determined that that will be the case.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

There was a ruling and a sanction from the independent complaints and grievance system within the United Kingdom Parliament, but the same sanction does not have to be adopted by the SNP parliamentary party at Westminster. Patrick Grady has served just two days of suspension from the SNP at Westminster. Two days is an insult.

Throughout the process, the victim has been disregarded. I hope that the First Minister listened to what he had to say this morning. The victim feels betrayed. He said that Patrick Grady and Ian Blackford tried to take

“advantage of me being young and inexperienced”,

and that the party

“did the bare minimum of investigation.”

He described his life as a result of the ordeal as “torture” and “a living hell”. Most depressingly of all, he said that the SNP is

“punishing any victim of this sort of behaviour and ... punishing anyone that has come forward with a similar complaint to mine.”

This morning, the victim also said that there are lots of questions for the First Minister to answer and he made it clear that those questions are not being answered. He said:

“I would like to see Nicola say more on the subject.”

Will the First Minister now tell the victim what her reaction was when she heard the leaked recording in which Ian Blackford encouraged SNP MPs to support the guilty party instead of the victim?

The First Minister:

Some days ago, in a written message, I said sorry directly to the victim in the case. I have also confirmed my willingness to meet the victim directly and personally. When—as I hope it will—that interaction takes place, I will say that I am sorry in person. It is not my behaviour that was investigated, but I am the leader of the SNP and I take that responsibility very seriously.

The recording of the Westminster group meeting reveals part of what was wrong in that case. Indeed, some of the individuals who were recorded at that meeting have already said that themselves. I was not at the meeting, so I cannot comment on whether it is an accurate overall reflection of the discussion, but what I have heard suggests that more concern was shown for the perpetrator of the behaviour than for its victim. That is utterly unacceptable and I will be very clear about that.

I will repeat the point that I made earlier. Thankfully, we now live in a society in which behaviour of that nature is not accepted and, rightly, is not brushed under the carpet, as it used to be. I am sure that everybody in the chamber remembers the two years—I think that it was two years, in total—during which I was subjected to pretty gruelling investigations about separate instances. I would argue that that came about because I refused to brush certain things under the carpet.

It is important that there is transparency and that any organisation that is facing such issues reflects on and fully faces up to them. I will ensure that that happens for the SNP.

I will make this my final point: all parties have faced such situations. Two Westminster by-elections are happening today because of behaviour by Conservative MPs. All parties have faced that and all parties have been criticised, including in those cases, for their handling of matters.

It is important for all of us, but I will speak only for myself. A person who is in my position should not sit in a glass house throwing stones about such things. We should sort such things out when they arise in our parties. That is what I intend to do for the SNP, and that is what all leaders should do when the issue arises in their parties.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

I know that the First Minister wants to make this about other parties and other parts of the country—[

Interruption

.]

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

However, we have two by-elections today because Conservative MPs have been suspended and have resigned from Parliament. Patrick Grady has been suspended for 48 hours. The First Minister called the recording of the SNP group meeting “utterly unacceptable”. The recording has been public for almost a week, but this is the first that we are hearing from the First Minister about it.

The First Minister’s apology will be welcome, but this morning the victim rejected Ian Blackford’s apology. He called it “a cop-out” and “a publicity stunt”.

The victim said that Ian Blackford has apologised only to protect his own position. He said:

“It seems like the SNP under Ian Blackford at Westminster hasn’t learned a thing and they’re still trying to close ranks and discredit the victim by not really addressing any of the issues.”

He added that nobody can really seriously believe that the SNP will make improvements to the procedure as long as Ian Blackford is still in post. The First Minister has to answer that charge. It is a deep systemic problem in the governing party here in Scotland, and it is an all-too-familiar tale.

Last year, in similar circumstances, Nicola Sturgeon stood up and said in this chamber:

“It will be a priority for me, for as long as I am First Minister, to ensure that lessons are learned and that trust is re-established so that anyone who considers in the future that they have suffered sexual harassment has the confidence to come forward and knows that their concerns will be listened to and addressed.”—[

Official Report

, 23 March 2021; c 34.]

I ask the First Minister, having listened to her words from a year ago and to the victim’s words today, is it not the case that no lessons have been learned?

The First Minister:

No, that is not the case, and I stand by every single word that has just been quoted. The particular issue that we are discussing today is not a Scottish Government issue—it is an SNP issue—but in the Scottish Government, we have a new complaints process that was put in place after very elaborate consultation of trade unions to ensure that we have a process that people have confidence in and feel able to use. It is important that we reflect on the situation to ensure that if changes need to be made to the process, those changes are made.

On sanctions, as I said, an independent process investigated the matter in detail and recommended the sanction that it considered was appropriate in this case. It is an independent process that all parties are signed up to, and that all parties should respect.

My final point is that Douglas Ross will characterise whatever I say in whatever way he chooses—that is up to him—but I think that people who are listening will hear that I take the issues extremely seriously. I do not think that they will have heard me try to make it all about other parties; they will have heard me say something on which we should all reflect. If I was standing here saying that the SNP has no issues, and it is all about the Conservatives or Labour, I would be showing that I do not understand the systemic nature of the issues.

Douglas Ross is rightly raising issues with me when they arise with the SNP, but if he is really saying that it is somehow a problem that is unique to the SNP, I would argue that he is demonstrating that he does not understand the systemic society-wide nature of the issues.

I will take the issues very seriously whenever the Scottish Government or the SNP is accused of having people who have behaved inappropriately. As I said a moment ago, I went through some of the most difficult times of my whole time in politics because I was not prepared to have simply swept under the carpet allegations that had been made against somebody who had been very close to me.

It is really important that we all face up to this. For my part, I will do so, and I encourage everybody else to do likewise.