Nicola Sturgeon misled a Scottish Parliament committee, an investigation into the Scottish Government’s unlawful handling of harassment allegations against Alex Salmond has concluded.
The findings are separate from those of James Hamilton, who reported on Monday that there had been no breach of the ministerial code by the First Minister over her role in the saga.
The Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints found a “fundamental contradiction” in her evidence on whether she agreed to intervene in a Scottish Government investigation into complaints by two women against the former first minister.
It said that, in a meeting at her Glasgow home on April 2 2018, Ms Sturgeon “did in fact leave Mr Salmond with the impression that she would, if necessary, intervene”.
“Her written evidence is therefore an inaccurate account of what happened, and she has misled the committee on this matter,” the report added.
The committee found this is a potential breach of the ministerial code but added that Mr Hamilton’s report was the “most appropriate place” to address the question of whether Ms Sturgeon had breached the ministerial code.
The four SNP committee members did not agree with the finding that she misled the committee, which was among the conclusions leaked last week.
The report states the committee “find it hard to believe” Ms Sturgeon had “no knowledge of any concerns about inappropriate behaviour on the part of Mr Salmond prior to November 2017”.
It continues: “If she did have such knowledge, then she should have acted upon it. If she did have such knowledge, then she has misled the committee.”
The committee then said it was “concerned” that Ms Sturgeon did not disclose details of her meeting with Mr Salmond to the Scottish Government’s most senior civil servant, Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, until June 6 – more than two months after the meeting at the First Minister’s home.
A majority of the committee members believe she should have told Ms Evans “at the earliest opportunity” and immediately stopped contact with Mr Salmond, instead of continuing to meet him.
The cross-party inquiry was set up after a successful judicial review by Mr Salmond resulted in the Scottish Government’s investigation into the allegations against him being ruled unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias” in 2019.
He was awarded a maximum payout of £512,250 after the Scottish Government conceded the case a week before it was due to be heard in court because of prior contact between investigating officer Judith Mackinnon and two of the women who made complaints.
The committee found the Scottish Government’s handling of the complaints was “seriously flawed” and the women who made the allegations were “badly let down”.
It concluded that the Scottish Government was responsible from an early stage “for a serious, substantial and entirely avoidable situation that resulted in a prolonged, expensive and unsuccessful defence” of the civil case.
MSPs unanimously agreed that the failure to identify Ms Mackinnon’s prior contact was “astonishing” and said she appeared to have two roles in the process: “One as the investigating officer and one as a source of support to the complainers.”
They conclude she had “built up a rapport and relationship of trust” with two complainers by the time she was appointed as investigating officer, despite the complaints procedure stating the person “will have had no prior involvement with any aspect of the matter being raised”.
Had the government identified all relevant documents and complied with its duty of candour “fully and promptly” early in the process, the “fatal” flaw could have been “brought to the fore”, the MSPs argue.
They identify an “individual failing” on this issue by Leslie Evans, because she knew of the prior contact and did not ensure the relevant information was made available sooner.
The committee said this is “unacceptable” and those responsible should be held accountable.
“Ultimately it was the prior involvement of the investigating officer which led to the Scottish Government conceding the judicial review but the committee believes the degree of involvement of the Permanent Secretary and her actions as deciding officer also places a question mark over the process,” the report states.
The committee also made a series of recommendations in an attempt to give future complainants confidence in the process and prevent similar mistakes.
Going further than the review of the current complaints procedure by Laura Dunlop QC, the committee says the Scottish Government should consider introducing independent investigations for complaints about current ministers, as well as former ministers as Ms Dunlop recommended.
Condemning the repeated obstructions, delays providing information and often extensive redactions, the committee also concludes that the Scottish Parliament “may have insufficient powers to hold the executive to account”.
It therefore recommends the creation of a commission to review the relationship between the government and the legislature, and to “make recommendations for change”.
Following the report’s publication, committee convener, Linda Fabiani, said: “There are undoubtedly some extremely serious findings in our report and it was clear to the committee that there were serious flaws made in the Government’s application of its own process.
“The Government must address these to ensure anyone who experiences sexual harassment has the confidence to come forward.”
Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the Scottish Government would “learn lessons” from the report.
He said: “The Scottish Government has acknowledged that it made mistakes and that these led to the judicial review being conceded, and I know that this had a real, and damaging, impact for the women who raised the complaints. We have apologised for this and we do so unreservedly again today.
“I remain absolutely determined that the Scottish Government should ensure this does not happen again and that together we create a culture where these behaviours do not arise.”