Patrick Harvie, FM Nicola Sturgeon, Anas Sarwar, Willie Rennie, Jackie Baillie and Maurice Corry.
By Bill Heaney
Dumbarton man Patrick Harvie’s Green Party saved First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s political skin on Tuesday when they joined with the SNP to block a “no confidence” motion in her brought by the Conservatives.
Dumbarton constituency Labour MSP Jackie Baillie abstained from voting and Maurice Corry, the Conservative List MSP from Garelochside voted for Ms Sturgeon to resign from office.
Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who was always going to be on a hiding to nothing, told MSPs in the Holyrood chamber: “e are here today because a former First Minister[Alex Salmond] was accused of sexually harassing members of staff in a Government that he was there not only to lead but to serve.
“We are here because the hastily changed policy that was designed to protect staff from such actions was not fit for purpose and was implemented in an unfair and unlawful way.
“We are here because the Scottish Government, when subject to judicial review of the cluster boorach [shambles] that had occurred, sought to frustrate the court, embarrassed its own lawyers and attempted to defend the indefensible, costing the taxpayer more than £0.5 million in the process.
Roddy Dunlop QC, Advocate Christine O’Neill and James Hamilton QC.
“Nobody comes out of this well, apart from the original complainants and the external counsel [Roddy Dunlop QC and Advocate Christine O’Neill] to the Scottish Government, and nobody has taken responsibility for the multiple failings, at every level, that occurred.
“Getting to today has been a process years in the making. Let us remember the promises that were made. We were told: ‘I now intend—fully, as the First Minister—to respect the work of the various investigations that have been established’.
“Those were the words of Nicola Sturgeon, spoken on 17 January 2019 from the place in which she is now sitting, and I took her at her word.
“A committee of the Scottish Parliament had been established to consider and report on the actions of the First Minister, Government officials and special advisers over the botched investigation.
“That committee would take evidence, deliberate and deliver a judgment. Indeed, the First Minister demanded of members of the Parliament the same high standards as she claimed for herself.
“She said: ‘it strikes me that people cannot call for inquiries and then refuse to respect the work of those inquiries. I will respect the work of those inquiries; the question is, will others across the chamber?”—
“That was a fundamental question to which at the time there seemed a pretty self-evident answer.
“What member of the Parliament would not respect and accept the verdict of a committee of the Parliament that had been established to investigate such serious matters?
“Now the verdict is in and we have our answer to that fundamental question, and those who have traduced the committee, who have rubbished its work, who have thrown mud at its members, who have made baseless claims regarding its outcomes and who have disrespected its conclusions—[Interruption as the chamber erupted.]
“Yesterday, we publicly accepted the Hamilton report. For days, others have rejected the committee’s report. We note that Hamilton was crystal clear that the basis of the vote of no confidence, which is whether the First Minister misled the Parliament, is a decision for the Parliament and not for him.”
She added: “In its 192 pages, the[committee’s] report directly concludes that the First Minister misled the parliamentary committee regarding her initial meeting with Alex Salmond in her house in April 2018.
“We already know that her original statement that the meeting was the first time that she had heard of any such complaints was also misleading and that, months after she falsely stated that to Parliament, she was forced to correct the record.
“The committee also concluded that the catastrophic failure to disclose documents through the judicial review process was the reason for the high awarding of costs and the wasting of taxpayers’ money, and said: ‘those responsible should be held accountable’.
“Similarly to the judicial review, the committee was directly thwarted in its attempts to gather evidence, and its verdict was scalding. It said:
“This is an unacceptable position for a parliamentary committee to find itself in when trying to scrutinise the Scottish Government, particularly when both the First Minister and the Permanent Secretary stated there would be full co-operation with the inquiry. How hollow that full co-operation pledge now looks.”
Ms Davidson added: “The part of the report that is most difficult for all of us to read—and I expect for the First Minister, too—is the evidence of the original complainers, who were badly let down.
“They talked of working in a culture where bad behaviour was endemic and where such behaviour was permitted and a blind eye was turned to it.
“That charge was substantiated by the civil service union the FDA, which said that its members who worked for the Scottish Government operated in a culture of fear and that the issues are not historical but current.
“No matter what our political colours are, it should shame us all that working for our country’s Government, which should be a matter of pride, is actually a test of strength because of unacceptable behaviour and blind eyes being turned.
“On the subject of behaviour, I put on record that I believe that the leaking last week of the report’s findings was both damaging and wrong. I, along with my party, will support any investigation into that wrongdoing.
“The First Minister proclaimed her respect for the work of this Parliament’s committee of inquiry, right up to the moment when it became clear that the outcome would not suit her and her respect for it vanished.
“I do not doubt that, if the committee report had cleared her of wrongdoing, it would be held up as being the will of Parliament. A report that found that she misled Parliament is instead denounced as an unprincipled hatchet job.
“I have already said that I respect the Hamilton report’s conclusions, but Mr Hamilton publicly and specifically handed the question of whether the First Minister misled this Parliament back to the Parliament itself. Let us be clear about what a committee of this Parliament found in its inquiry.
“After spending months gathering evidence from dozens of witnesses, including eight hours of testimony by the First Minister, and after deliberation, the committee found that Nicola Sturgeon had misled Parliament. Nothing can erase that fact, however inconvenient it is to the First Minister and to her supporters.
“Let us remember that, by misleading the Scottish Parliament, the First Minister also misled the people of Scotland. No First Minister who truly wanted to live up to the ideals of this Parliament should feel able to continue in post after being judged guilty of misleading it.
“How can Parliament have confidence in the words of a First Minister whose words have been found to be false? The honourable thing would be to resign. Whether the First Minister has that sense of honour is now between herself and her conscience.”
And that was the Tory case in a nutshell, a big nutshell but a nutshell just the same.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told parliament that she refused to be bullied by her critics.
She said: “Wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity—those are the values inscribed on our mace and each and every one of us has a duty to uphold them. Before I address my position, I say that there are some in this chamber who decided before a single word of evidence had been heard that I was guilty in relation to the handling of complaints against the former First Minister. The only question was what they would choose to find me guilty of.
“In recent months I have faced accusations of conspiracy against, collusion with and cover-up on behalf of Alex Salmond. None of that is supported by evidence because none of it is true.
“For some—as the Tory motion makes clear—getting to the facts, learning lessons and helping to ensure that women are not let down in the future were always secondary considerations to the desperate attempt to claim my political scalp.
“Nevertheless, the committee’s work was important and I give an assurance that the Government will study the report closely and will take its recommendations seriously.
“The mistake made by the Government in the investigation of the complaints against Alex Salmond—albeit a mistake made in the course of trying to do the right thing—was serious, as were its consequences.
“Once again, I apologise unreservedly to the women who were let down as a result of that.”
She added: “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.
“Turning to my own position, as I said in evidence to the committee, I may not have got everything right in my handling of the situation. The situation that I was confronted with was extremely difficult, certainly politically but also personally.
“I accept and respect that some people faced with the same situation might have made different decisions, but I am clear in my mind that I acted appropriately and that I made the right overall judgments and I entirely reject any suggestion of misleading this Parliament.
“Being at peace with my own conscience on those matters, as I am, is a necessary condition for my being able to continue as First Minister, but I know that that is not sufficient. No politician can be her own judge and jury.
“The public deserved independent verification that I had not breached the standards that I am expected to uphold. Yesterday, they got that assurance from James Hamilton’s report.
“Mr Hamilton considered all the issues that were alleged to amount to a breach of the ministerial code, including the question whether I misled Parliament. He concluded: ‘I am of the opinion that the First Minister did not breach the provisions of the Ministerial Code in respect of any of these matters’.
In advance of yesterday’s report, all parties spoke of the need to respect Mr Hamilton’s conclusions. Indeed, the committee’s report says: ‘James Hamilton’s report is the most appropriate place to address the question of whether or not the First Minister has breached the Scottish Ministerial Code’.
“Let me be clear. Had Mr Hamilton’s report gone the other way, I would have accepted it. Had he found that I had breached the code in anything other than the most technical and immaterial of ways, I would have been standing here right now tendering my resignation, because the integrity of the office that I am so privileged to hold really matters to me. The office of First Minister is more important than any temporary incumbent of it.
“However, given that I have been cleared by the independent report of any breach of the ministerial code, my message to all those—especially the Conservatives, despite Ruth Davidson’s protestations—who now refuse to accept Mr Hamilton’s conclusions is this: if they think that they can bully me out of office, they are mistaken and they misjudge me.
“If they want to remove me as First Minister, they should do it in an election. Of course, if today’s desperate political stunt proves anything it is that they have no confidence whatsoever in their ability to do so, because they have nothing positive to offer the Scottish people.
“The past year has been exhausting for everyone. My experience of it is as nothing compared with those who have lost loved ones, suffered illness or watched businesses go to the wall. However, I have given my all every single day, trying to lead us though this ordeal. I do not mind admitting that the intensity and gravity of decision making has taken its toll.
“The Alex Salmond saga, and the assault on my character that it has entailed, has certainly not helped. However, this country needs strong, experienced and positive leadership as we continue to navigate our way through and out of this crisis, and that is what I offer.
“That takes me to my final and most fundamental point. Tomorrow, this parliamentary session reaches its conclusion—perhaps not a moment too soon. The toxic atmosphere that has infected the chamber in recent months will give way—I hope—to the fresh air of an election. I hope that the fresh air will bring with it a rigorous and positive debate not just about personalities but about the kind of country that we want to be, and about how we rebuild from the pandemic and create a fairer, more prosperous Scotland. It is now time for the country to decide.
“The confidence of this Parliament matters—of course it does. However, it is the confidence of the people of Scotland that matters most, and that is what I will seek to demonstrate, and seek to win, in the weeks that lie ahead.”
The new Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, told the chamber: “ I would much rather that we were reflecting on the impact of this dreadful pandemic and debating what we need to do to ensure that our country recovers in the years ahead. Instead, we are confronted by a litany of Government failings, which led to two women being so badly let down, and by a Tory party that cares not about the principles but about the politics.
“The harassment policy failed and two women were let down. That has shaken trust in the system and risked discouraging victims from coming forwards. The situation has called into question the integrity of Government, it has undermined the principles of transparency and accountability, and it has seen a misuse of public money. There are huge failures and big questions to be answered.
“There are no winners in this debate. The Scottish National Party is not a winner in it. The spectacle of using a harassment inquiry as a recruiting tool was grotesque.
“In the face of all those failures, the Tories have played politics and have been interested only in getting a scalp. They announced that they would bring forward a vote of no confidence before the First Minister had even given evidence to the committee. They lodged the motion on 4 March, before the Hamilton inquiry or the committee inquiry had concluded. Seriously?
“On one side, there is a litany of failings from a Government that let down two women; on the other, there is an Opposition that is guilty of playing grubby party politics with an issue as serious as sexual harassment. This is a day of shame for our Parliament. Scotland deserves a better Government and a better Opposition.”
LibDem leader Willie Rennie said: “Scottish politics today does not look pretty, with talk of lynching and assassination; the leaking of the private evidence of complainants; the lodging of motions of no confidence even before all the evidence has been heard; the attacking of a committee because it does not agree with the First Minister; the lauding of the performance of Nicola Sturgeon because she talked to a committee for eight hours—as if the show is more important than the facts; and the boasting about recruiting new members on the back of this tragedy. No one wins from this ugly episode—not the First Minister, not Douglas Ross and certainly not Alex Salmond, who has been exposed for what he really is.
“We know who has been failed: the women who complained. When they stepped up, we were not there for them. In the committee’s report, which was published today, one woman tells how she and her fellow complainer were dropped by the Scottish Government and left to swim.”
He added: “The Conservatives have shown themselves to be interested only in removing Nicola Sturgeon from office rather than in the facts of this terrible series of events. They have undermined the integrity of the independent investigator.
“However, even the most ardent SNP supporter must recognise that the women who complained were let down by the Government and that £500,000 was wasted on defending the indefensible in court.
We know that the Government will win today, because it has the unconditional support of the Green Party, but this debate and vote cannot be the end of the matter.”
This is what Patrick Harvie, whose party’s votes also ushered the SNP budget through, had to say: “What we have seen since then has been the deliberate, systematic and entirely cynical exploitation of that issue to suit motives that are all too apparent today. The media in Scotland and throughout the UK are awash with speculation about the Sturgeon-Salmond psychodrama.
“The coverage of it is dominated by one question: what does it mean for the independence cause, when we should be asking what it means for the treatment of harassment or the position of those who want to call it out. Sadly, we already know the answer to that question. Since the original committee leaks months ago, through multiple instances of MSPs on that committee prejudging the evidence and announcing their political motivations to the world, and then to the disgraceful betrayal of trust of the original complainants during the past weekend, what should have been a serious inquiry has descended into farce.
“I believe that that has been the deliberate choice of those who have nothing to offer the people of Scotland. They looked at the devolved institutions, saw a high level of public trust in them and could not bear it, so they set about trying to drag everything down to their level. They will fail, but, as a direct result of their actions, the women who complained about sexual harassment in the first place had to put out a statement via Rape Crisis Scotland to complain about the violation of their trust.
“So, here we are: on one hand, we have an independent report by someone with enough professionalism not to go hawking quotes to the press in advance, which clears the First Minister of any breach of the ministerial code; in the other hand, we have a report by a committee of the Parliament whose members have prejudged the evidence, called for resignations before listening to it, betrayed the original complainers in the sexual harassment case and leaked their conclusions to the media. Their actions are a betrayal of the trust that we all placed in them when we appointed that committee.”
The result of the division on the motion in the name of Ruth Davidson, on a motion of no confidence, iwas: For 31, Against 65, Abstentions 27, and the motion was disagreed to.