The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh.
By Bill Heaney
It reads like a script from Yes Minister, the hugely popular BBC comedy about politics. But it’s anything but funny.
I refer to the official record of proceedings from the Scottish Parliament into the allegations of sexual assault and attempted rape made by civil servants against the former First Minister Alex Salmond.
An indictment of charges of which Mr Salmond, pictured right, was found not guilty by a jury at the High Court in Edinburgh.
Officially that inquiry is known as the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints.
Leslie Evans, the permanent secretary, had been recalled after her initial appearance before the committee on 18 August to answer questions from MSPs on the development of the policy on handling of harassment complaints.
The chairperson Linda Fabiani opened with a reminder to all those present of the need to avoid being in contempt of court through identifying certain individuals, including through jigsaw identification.
She said: “The committee as a whole has agreed that it is not our role to revisit events that were the focus of the trial, as that could be seen to constitute a rerun of the criminal trial.
“Our remit is to consider and report on the actions of the First Minister [Nicola Sturgeon], Scottish Government officials and special advisers in dealing with complaints about Alex Salmond, former First Minister, considered under the Scottish Government’s ‘Handling of harassment complaints involving current or former ministers’ procedure and actions in relation to the Scottish Ministerial Code.”
Prominent Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser picked up on an issue that was “left hanging” at the end of the previous meeting and asked Ms Evans: “Without going into individual cases, are you aware of any changes in working practices that resulted from concerns that staff expressed about behaviour, including the behaviour of ministers? If so, what were those changes?”
Ms Evans, pictured left, an immaculately dressed, attractive middle-aged blonde, replied: “I am not aware of such changes. I would not necessarily be aware of such changes, unless I was particularly close to the office in which they occurred. That is not to say that changes do not take place, but I am not aware of any specifics. I am not sure whether you are talking about specifics; I appreciate that we do not want to get into those.”
Murdo Fraser persisted: “You are not personally aware of any changes? When the trade unions came to give us evidence last week, they told us that they were aware of a number of situations in which the civil service had, rather than try to resolve the situation, moved individuals who had raised concerns to different positions or departments, or had assigned them to work for a different minister. Is that something that you are aware of?”
Leslie Evans said: “I am aware that when there is a local issue within an office or between individuals, we work as hard as we can to ensure that that is resolved informally. That is almost always the best way. It can happen through a range of processes; it might be done through mediation or through support from human resources staff, or by introducing some kind of third party. Sometimes, such a situation might not be resolved in the way that we would like it to be resolved.
“You will know, and members who have been ministers will know, that moving people around in jobs happens quite frequently, anyway, usually after a few years. I would not say that that is a traditional route: it is an option.
“Our preference will always be to ensure that we can first spot and prevent issues, and then that we resolve those issues through a range of informal mechanisms, which include mediation and conversations of that kind.”
She added: “Best practice is to try to resolve things informally, wherever possible. That is the approach that we take and it is what our polices reflect.
“Wherever possible, we try to get informal resolution through mediation, conversation or support, and by identifying any additional support that is required.”
Murdo Fraser told the inquiry: “The trade unions told us last week of their concerns about the level of complaints and concerns that had been raised with them.
“The level of complaints within the Scottish Government seemed to be very high, compared to that in the rest of the civil service.
“Can you give us a flavour, from your experience, of the civil service? Is there a particular issue in the Scottish Government that is more acute there than it is in other parts of the civil service?”
Ms Evans said that she found this “quite puzzling”, and added: “I am not complacent. You are right to differentiate between concerns and complaints. A complaint would normally mean that we have triggered the formal procedure.”
There were two or three issues – “First, I did not recognise some quite specific figures that the FDA union brought out about the numbers of ministers and the numbers of complaints over a period of something like ten years. I am not sure from the evidence which ten-year period that was. There was talk of multiple Administrations and there was quite a lot of conversation about all that.
“I do not recognise that, in the light of the hard data that we have now—in particular, going back to the people survey of 2019. That does not reflect what I know about the organisation.
“As I said, we have very few formal complaints. In fact, over the past 10 or 13 years, we have had only a handful.
“Many such issues will, rightly, have been resolved by a person saying, ‘I’m concerned about this, and I want you to hear what I have to say.’
“That is not to say that we should sit and watch that emerge; we should still take action—predominantly, preventative action.
“The data that is coming through at the moment perhaps shows that there is an increased appetite among people for being prepared to raise bullying and harassment concerns in other parts of the UK civil service.
“I think that it was Dave Penman from the FDA who said that he feels that the Scottish Government has done more in the area than the House of Commons and the Cabinet Office have done.”
Murdo Fraser asked her: “Did you, personally, ever experience bullying behaviour in your career in the civil service? For example, were you ever on the receiving end of shouting from a minister?”
She replied: “Over my career as a whole, I have had people shout at me. I suspect that very few people who are here today have not had that, and that includes the civil service. Are you asking whether ministers have ever shouted at me?”
Leslie Evans explained: “We are talking about the unique relationship between civil servants and ministers; it is unlike anything else. That is not to say that it is not governed by conditions and criteria of good behaviour—of course it is.
“However, if you ask anybody in any organisation whether they have ever had a conversation with somebody else that has ended up with shouting, they will say that it has happened, although not very often.
“I understand that people are passionate, committed and hard-working; that applies to people in the civil service and the ministers with whom I have worked. However, there is a line to be drawn, and I would draw it. There is passion, commitment and the occasional loss of temper, and when behaviour crosses that line, that is different.”
She said it had never crossed that line with her.
Murdo Fraser said: “I have one more question, which is for the permanent secretary. It was reported that after the conclusion of the judicial review case, you sent a text message to a colleague that contained the words: “We may have lost the battle, but we will win the war.”
What did you mean by that?
Ms Evans replied: “That has been misinterpreted as having some kind of conspiratorial element to it. I clearly say that that is not the case.
“I have been working, since I was first appointed as permanent secretary on 1 July 2015, to make the organisation a more inclusive and diverse one that respects everybody’s right to come to work and have the right kind of conditions at work.
“I have worked to ensure that equality is at the heart of the business of government, and also at the heart of the organisational culture.
“I was not referring to any individual when I sent that text. I was talking about a long-term commitment of mine, and indeed of the Scottish Government—as you will see from its policy documents—to ensure that equality lies at the heart of what it does and of how it operates as an organisation.”
Murdo Fraser: “So you were not at war with Alex Salmond?”
Leslie Evans: “No.”
Liberal Democrat Alex Cole-Hamilton, pictured right, told the inquiry that two weeks ago, James Hynd, a senior civil servant, reported that, in his words, “things were said” to him as part of an informal hum of rumours about bullying and sexually inappropriate behaviour by Alex Salmond and other ministers.
He asked Ms Evans: “When did you first pick up on those rumours that were circulating about Mr Salmond’s behaviour?”
She said she was not sure that she understood the question – “Are you talking about James Hynd saying that there was water-cooler talk?”
Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “There were water-cooler conversations. It was the scuttlebutt at the time. When did you first pick up on those rumours?”
She said she could not comment on when she picked up on rumours, but that she knew about them. I understand that there were rumours.”
Alex Cole-Hamilton then asked: “Did you know about them?”
Leslie Evans replied: “Yes, I did—absolutely.”
Asked if Alex Salmond ever shouted at her, she said: “I do not remember him shouting at me.”
Mr Cole-Hamilton said that in his submission, Sir Peter Housden told the inquiry that when he was permanent secretary he would deal personally and informally with allegations of bullying and harassment by ministers.
He asked Ms Evans: “Did he ever discuss that quiet handling of concerns about ministers either formally or informally with you, as the director general at the time?
She replied: “We had conversations about conversations that I had had with individuals about Mr Salmond’s behaviour.”
Alex Cole-Hamilton then asked her about a conversation she had had with Sir Peter prior to her taking over his job: “We all know that with a handover, there is always a formal date and an informal date, and on the informal date one might be told—I am saying this in quote marks—where the bodies are buried.
“As part of that, did he ever discuss either formally or informally with you how you might need to handle complaints against ministers, how he had done that in the past and how you might take things forward?”
But Leslie Evans replied: “I do not recall that. He might have done; I do not remember it.”
Labour MSP Jackie Baillie, pictured left, who represents Dumbarton, Vale of Leven, Helensburgh and the Lochside, asked Ms Evans: “At our previous session, you referenced an incident in which Sky News was interested, in relation to which the former First Minister had contacted members of staff.
“Can you tell me when you told the First Minister about the Sky News issue? Was it just verbally? Was anyone else in the room? What was the outcome?”
Leslie Evans: “It was early in November, and it was verbally.”
Jackie Baillie: “Was anyone else in the room?”
Leslie Evans: “I cannot remember, to be honest.”
Jackie Baillie: “Okay, so there could have been.”
Leslie Evans: “There might have been.”
Jackie Baillie: “That is helpful. Was it one of the staff members who reported the contact by the former First Minister with regard to the Sky News interest one of the complainers?”
Leslie Evans: “Not to my knowledge, at that time. I came to know about the Sky News issue through two different sources: one person who had been contacted and another who had not but who knew that people had been contacted. At that time, those were the two routes through which I was alerted to this issue.”
Jackie Baillie: “Let me be clear, because you said: ‘Not to my knowledge, at that time’. Did any of them go on to be complainers?”
Leslie Evans: “I suppose that I am differentiating between then and now. Then, I had no knowledge; now, I do.”
Jackie Baillie: “So, one of them went on to be a complainer?”
Leslie Evans: “I am so not sure about that. I am choosing my words carefully not to be unhelpful but because I am alert to the constraints.”
Jackie Baillie: “I understand that. I would be happy if you wrote to the committee with that clarification.”
Leslie Evans: “I am happy to do that.”
Jackie Baillie then said: “In our previous session, you said: ‘I was not close to the procedure development, as you would expect’.
“You have given me the impression of distancing yourself from the development of the policy and the procedure. I am sure that you did not mean to do that, because the documents that we have seen tell quite a different story.
“We have James Hynd reporting to you; HR was in regular discussion with you, keeping you informed; you made comments on the draft procedure as it developed; your private secretary was in email discussion with the First Minister’s chief of staff—you know, there was a lot of activity.
“Indeed, you met directly with the First Minister [Nicola Sturgeon], pictured right, to approve her letter of commission of 22 November.
“On that basis, and given that you are a key decision maker in relation to the policy, is it not the truth that you were driving the process, as I would expect, because it was a commission from the Cabinet?”
Leslie Evans: “No, because the person who drives the processes is the person who is the lead responsible officer for completing the task, particularly with something as important as a Cabinet commission.
“If I led and was involved with every Cabinet commission, I would not have time for very much else.”
She added: “I am not trying to distance myself. That was a perfectly normal and traditional way of keeping me abreast of something that was important and on the First Minister’s radar. Things that are pronounced on the First Minister’s radar are, of course, important to me.”
Jackie Baillie replied: “Absolutely. However, there is nothing that I have said about those interactions that is incorrect?”
Leslie Evans: “Do you mean that people were briefing me and I was having meetings with them?
Jackie Baillie: “Absolutely.”
Leslie Evans said: “No. That would be a normal part of daily life. I should point out, of course, that neither James Hynd nor Nicola Richards reports to me; they report to their own line managers on their work.”
Jackie Baillie: “Sure, but there were numerous emails backwards and forwards with either you or your private secretary.”
Leslie Evans: “My private secretary and my private office were heavily involved on my behalf, as they are with most of the business that I undertake.”
Jackie Baillie: “Yes, but the private office is the extension of the minister. I have been a minister, and I know that that is how it operates.”
Leslie Evans: “They undertake work on my behalf on a regular basis.”
Jackie Baillie: “Were you aware that potential complainants were informed that Judith Mackinnon would be appointed as the investigating officer weeks before the policy was even signed off and more than a month before her appointment was made?”
Leslie Evans: “I was aware that she had contact before she was appointed as the investigating officer, as, indeed, the procedure enabled and recognised. I was not aware that she was talking to them closer to hand about the fact that she would be the investigating officer, but I was aware that she was following the procedure, as she would do, impartially, appropriately and professionally, in talking to and supporting any people with concerns who might decide to turn those into complaints about the options that were available to them at any one time, including how the procedure would move on.”
Jackie Baillie: “Finally, from your previous evidence and James Hynd’s evidence, he was the first person to decide to propose the policy for former ministers, despite that not being mentioned in the Cabinet on 31 October 2017 or in the parliamentary statement of the same date. I understand that the first draft or the first iteration of the new policy specifically on former ministers was on 8 November. We know that James Hynd sent that directly to you on 10 November in an email.
“Is it not the case that you and your office had discussions with Judith Mackinnon and Julie MacFadyen on the question of producing a route map including former ministers on 7 November, which was the day before 8 November, that that route map was sent to James Hynd on 7 November, and that he replied to you at 21:24 on 7 November?
“If that is correct, can we see the route map and any minutes and correspondence that are relevant to it? Unfortunately, I do not seem to be able to find that at all in the information that the Government has supplied to us, and that is of great concern. Can you advise whether that is correct?”
Leslie Evans: “There are a lot of dates and information there. I can tell you two things, which I think I mentioned in my previous evidence. The decision to include former ministers came from an analysis that was already under way and work that had already been undertaken on the fairness at work procedure.
“From the very beginning, it was agreed that the tidying-up—to use a colloquialism—or the making consistent of the fairness at work procedure would always address the issue of former ministers.
“I am surprised if the route map has not been shared as part of our paperwork, because it was heavily promoted as part of showing people which routes were best for them to choose, including going to the unions and other places to gain support if they wished to raise such a concern. If the route map as produced has not been shared with the committee, I see no reason why we should not send it to you.”
Jackie Baillie: “It is not only the route map; it is the exchange of correspondence. On 7 November, a day before the first iteration of the policy, you were asking about former ministers in the context of the route map, and the route map was shared with James Hynd. He replied on the same day. I am keen to understand that exchange of emails.
“I do not just want the route map; I want the exchange of correspondence that underpins it, which would be very helpful for the committee.”
Leslie Evans: “I have not seen those documents, so I am not aware of them. If we can share them with you, and there are no constraints around them, I do not see why we would not.”
The inquiry continues.