A media enquiry by Sky News has led to questions over what Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon knew of bullying concerns surrounding the office of her predecessor Alex Salmond.
When we asked the Scottish Government for copies of its grievance procedure, officials mistakenly sent out their internal emails which detailed their handling of the request.
Opponents of the SNP administration have described the contents of the email chain as “media management that would make Vladimir Putin blush” and say it raises serious questions over what Nicola Sturgeon knew of alleged bullying behaviour.
The Sky News enquiry was for copies of the Scottish Government’s complaints procedure for employees before and after 2007, when the SNP took office.
We wanted to examine changes made when the so-called Fairness at Work code was introduced in 2010, following union concerns about bullying surrounding the office former First Minister Alex Salmond.
The civil servants’ FDA union says it raised complaints with the government about the alleged behaviour in Mr Salmond’s office and by other ministers. In evidence to the current inquiry, which is looking into the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment allegations against Mr Salmond, the FDA said that some civil servants had complained they were operating in a “culture of fear.”
The Scottish government’s permanent secretary Leslie Evans has told the same inquiry she did not recognise the union’s claims.
When the 2010 changes were made to the Scottish Government’s grievance procedure, Nicola Sturgeon was given a significant responsibility in handling complaints made against government ministers.
The Fairness at Work code included a new mechanism for employees to make complaints against ministers and any escalation would be dealt with by a panel of two people – the permanent secretary (most senior civil servant) and the deputy first minister, who at that time was Nicola Sturgeon.
The Complaints Against Ministers section, brought in following the union concerns, was unique to the Scottish Government.
Sky News made its request for copies of the Fairness at Work code. It prompted internal Scottish Government correspondence that shows:
• Our request was passed from the Scottish Government communications team to policy and special advisers, then to the offices of the permanent secretary and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for approval.
• Policy and special advisers suggested that Sky News submit a Freedom of Information Request for the documents.
• The communications office drafted a list of “follow up questions” that would likely be asked by Sky News and “agreed responses” by policy and special advisers.
• The anticipated questions included: “Why was a section on Complaints Against Ministers added in 2010?”
• On the Complaints Against Ministers section, the proposed response states that “Ministers were consulted.”
The email chain was circulated to 39 recipients working in different government departments, many at a senior level.
Approval for the draft response was sought from the offices of the first minister and permanent secretary.
At the time we obtained the emails, the permanent secretary had given her approval but there is no written response from Nicola Sturgeon’s office.
It was in November 2017 that we submitted our request for copies of the government’s grievance procedure. The communications strategy we’ve seen was not, ultimately, enacted.
After Sky News had sight of its internal correspondence, the Scottish Government sent us the documents as originally requested.
The extent and apparent complexity of the government’s internal discussions about our enquiry have prompted questions.
Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP, of the Liberal Democrats, told Sky News: “The response to this routine request for a set of documents is as suspicious as it astonishing.
“Why was it subject to an elaborate process of prepared Q&As that was pored over by special advisers and had to be cleared by the first minister herself?
“It’s a piece of media management that would make Vladimir Putin blush and it smells of an attempt to deflect and create a mist around what happened in 2010.”
“Did Nicola Sturgeon know about concerns over bullying in Alex Salmond’s office as far back as 2010? He was her close colleague and leader, you had the unions complaining and she was given a role in handling complaints against ministers.
“Did she ask why, and what was going on?
“And the phrase that really jumps out is ‘Ministers were consulted about the change.’
“If that was the case, are we really expected to believe that Nicola Sturgeon, then deputy first minister, was not?”
Sky News asked the Scottish Government if First Minister Nicola Sturgeon knew of bullying concerns around Alex Salmond’s office in 2010 and, if so, what action did she take.
A Scottish Government spokesperson replied: “The First Minister has provided written evidence to the committee, and looks forward to answering questions when she is invited to appear.”
In her written submission to the parliamentary inquiry into the handling of sexual harassment complaints against Alex Salmond, Ms Sturgeon states: “I had no general concerns at the time about Scottish Government culture from 2008-14, and certainly not about sexual harassment. However, government is a high pressure environment.
“Mr Salmond could be challenging to work for and, rightly, he demanded high standards. However, I was present on some occasions when tense situations had to be defused.”
Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond are expected to give oral evidence to the inquiry at some stage.
It was set up after a 2018 Scottish Government investigation into the complaints was ruled “unlawful” and “tainted by apparent bias” by a Scottish court and the taxpayer had to foot the bill for £500,000 in legal costs.
He has accused his successor of misleading Parliament and giving evidence to the inquiry that was “simply untrue.” An investigation is underway into whether or not Ms Sturgeon breached the ministerial code.
If that is found to be proven, it could threaten her political future.
She has strongly rejected Mr Salmond’s claims regarding her statements on the harassment investigation, accusing him of “spinning false conspiracy theories.”
Alex Salmond was acquitted of sexual assault charges against nine women following a criminal trial in March last year.
Analysis: This should have been a routine request – but it triggered a code red
By James Matthews, Scotland correspondent
The Scottish Government’s Fairness at Work code is no state secret, after all – it is widely available, not least to the hundreds of civil servants whose welfare it was created to protect.
Asking for a copy would seem to be at the straightforward end of media enquiries processed by St Andrews House.
The emails we’ve seen tend to suggest otherwise. Curiously, our request triggered a convoluted communications process that reeks code red.
Why should a request for documents have to go to the very top of government, to be signed off by the first minister herself? And not before a strategy had been devised that was hardly going to accelerate access.
It is a fascinating glimpse of the inner workings of a modern-day government media machine. It’s also a measure of the distance travelled from a simpler time of straight question and answer to second-guessing.
When we wrote “2010”, what did they read?
The year 2010 ties together union claims of bullying, ministers being consulted about a need for change and Nicola Sturgeon being given responsibility in a new procedure.
The first minister’s opponents read it as a list of awkward questions. Awkwardly, so might her own team.