New complaints procedure to come into effect after unlawful Salmond probe

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Complaints about current and former Scottish Government ministers will be handled by external and independent investigators following the unlawful investigation into claims of sexual harassment by Alex Salmond.

The botched investigation into the former first minister was ruled to be unlawful by Scotland’s Court of Session, prompting three inquiries into the Government’s handling of the affair and its complaints procedure.

Under new rules, due to come into effect in February, independent investigators and adjudicators will handle formal complaints of bullying, harassment and discrimination about ministers made by civil servants.

The current complaints procedure has not been used since Mr Salmond successfully challenged it, resulting in the court awarding the former SNP leader more than half a million pounds.

Harassment allegation committee hearing
Nicola Sturgeon gave evidence to the inquiry into the handling of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond (Jeff J Mitchell/PA)

Following the reviews of the complaints procedure, a new process has been announced by Deputy First Minister John Swinney, who said he hopes it will help “build a positive and respectful culture” within the Scottish Government.

An updated complaints procedure was supposed to have been created last year, but Mr Swinney said more time was needed to be taken to ensure the new procedure is “fair and robust”.

According to the proposed policy, it aims to “ensure that formal complaints raised about current or former ministers in respect of unacceptable behaviour towards civil servants are handled sensitively, fairly and timeously and, in doing so, all parties are treated with respect and dignity”.

The updated procedure will consist of five stages, starting with a written complaint that will prompt the Government to confirm whether it can be investigated under the policy and notify all those involved.

If it can be taken forward, an external decision maker will be appointed and commission an independent and impartial investigator – to gather facts and evidence from the complainer, accused and any witnesses and provide a summary report.

The decision maker will then confirm that a reasonable investigation has been carried out, meet with the complainer – and possibly the person accused – before deciding whether to uphold the complaint and recommend what action, if any, should be taken.

Where a complaint about a current minister is upheld, the First Minister should be asked to decide whether the ministerial code has been broken and what punishment should follow. If the First Minister is the subject of the complaint, the Deputy First Minister will be informed.

Coronavirus – Tue Nov 23, 2021
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney (Jeff J Mitchell/PA)

An appeal against the outcome of any investigation can be lodged by either the complainer or the subject of complaint, which will be considered by an external appeal decision maker.

Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, said: “The Scottish Government has learned valuable lessons and is putting the interests of those making complaints at the heart of plans to improve the handling of future issues.

“The updated procedure is part of the organisation’s commitment to embedding a culture where bullying and harassment is not tolerated and where there is trust in how matters will be handled if things go wrong.

“Where a complaint is necessary, it is crucial those involved have confidence and can engage constructively and fairly in the process.

“We are determined to make this procedure as robust as possible for those raising a formal complaint, which is why we will invite our independent advisers to offer advice on any necessary adjustments to the Scottish ministerial code in the context of this update to ensure ministers engage fully with it.

“This ongoing work is informed by our engagement with trade unions and employees, including those with lived experiences of bullying and harassment.

“It is crucial in helping us build a positive and respectful culture with the highest standards of behaviour so that the Scottish Government can continue to carry out its programme delivering for the people of Scotland.”

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