Jim O’Neill says the SNP cannot be blamed for the failure of civil servants to correctly implement procedures in the Salmond case, but they, and the First Minister, do have serious questions to answer.
Let me set out my background which gives me some ability to comment on the Alex Salmond affair. I spent 15 years as a full time trade union official, dealing with exactly the kind of alleged conduct in this case. I also spent two years obtaining a Masters in Personnel Management from Strathclyde Business School, specialising in Joint Negotiation and Labour Law. So I have some ability to comment on the farce that ended up costing Scotland’s taxpayers some £500,000.
Let me be clear. The case that was lost, the procedural one, had nothing to do with SNP Ministers. In all such cases, following the new procedure signed off by Nicola Sturgeon at the start of 2017, the case is handled entirely by the appropriate civil servants, in this case the Parliamentary Secretary and her HR department. And they made novice mistakes for which I would have hauled any employer over the coals.
By allowing the investigating officer to be tainted by having prior knowledge of the case, they presaged the abject climbdown that happened this week. And by climbing down before the matter was even tested in court, they showed that the errors were clear to all and sundry, including the said Parliamentary Secretary. So who, then, made the decision to “robustly defend” the case? The First Minister says that she had no part in such decisions and, without evidence to the contrary, we must accept her word. So why, then, is she defending the Parliamentary Secretary so strongly? I would have expected that she would set up an investigation into such misuse of taxpayers money before such a robust defence. She must stay above the fray.
But it is seldom the initial action that brings people down. It is often the cover-up. We often forget that Ms Sturgeon was a lawyer, and so we would expect a higher understanding of the law than that held by ordinary folk. So, after denying there had been any contact between herself and Mr Salmond, why did she meet with him three times at her home and twice by phone? We now know, from FMQs, that the first meeting even included her most senior Special Adviser, a government employee. And was there a record made of these contacts, as required by the Ministerial Code? If so, where is it? If not, why not?
This was, at the very least, extremely naïve behaviour by the First Minister, bordering on the reckless. And her excuse, that she has responsibilities as a party leader, rang hollow, given the First Minister was meeting the former First Minister about a case being investigated by Scottish Government officials in response to complaints by two government employees, and not about any party matter. And indeed Mr Salmond has suspended his membership of the SNP until the investigation is over.
It is notable that the complaints were lodged almost as soon as the ink was dry on the 2017 procedure. This indicates that government employees had no faith in the way any previous complaints were investigated. And there were previous complaints against MSPs and staff. It is to Ms Sturgeon’s great credit that she responded to such concerns by creating a process that these two brave women had faith in. It is to the eternal discredit of the those charged with implementing that process that they have mishandled the first major case using the new procedures in such a cack-handed way that no-one in government service will trust them further.
It is also to Ms Sturgeon’s credit that she conceded an inquiry to Richard Leonard so quickly, given that she had already brushed aside the demands of Jackson Carlaw. Richard pointed out that the issues involved go to the heart of the Ministerial Code, and not just to who did what when. And it was instructive that the usual baying of the SNP backbenchers was silenced by Richard’s forensic questioning. After all, as a former full-time trade union official, he is on his own ground.
I suspect, however, that any such inquiry may be pushed back until after the criminal investigations by the police are completed and the Procurator Fiscal makes a judgement on the evidence presented. Just like Brexit, this one will run and run.