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‘Haunted’ Sturgeon admits harassment complaints process ‘let down those women’

Sturgeon harassment
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Nicola Sturgeon is under pressure to immediately publish an independent review on the Scottish Government’s harassment complaints process, after admitting women were let down more than two years ago.

The First Minister faced renewed demands for action as it emerged the SNP administration had received an independent report from a QC that Ms Sturgeon told parliament she had not seen.

Laura Dunlop QC was asked by the government to look at the procedures six months ago in the wake of the failed judicial review brought by former first minister Alex Salmond.

Mr Salmond had been accused under official complaints guidance that has remained unchanged. A judge said the way the complaints were handled had been “unfair” and showed “bias”.

‘It will be published’

At First Minister’s Questions in Holyrood on Thursday, Tory MSP Ruth Davidson said she understood the QC’s report had been completed. But Ms Sturgeon left the claim hanging, only saying she had not seen it.

The First Minister added: “It will be published, and it will be published in early course, once we’ve seen it.”

Tory MSP Ruth Davidson.

Shortly after the weekly questions session, government officials confirmed the report had, in fact, been received on Thursday morning – but claimed Ms Sturgeon was unaware until First Minister’s Questions had concluded.

The long wait was criticised by support group Rape Crisis Scotland’s Sandy Brindley, who said: “The key thing is confidence. It’s understandable why people don’t want to come forward.

“What’s been lost is the women concerned and whether or not this is making it easier or harder to be heard.”

In parliament, Ms Sturgeon was challenged by Davidson over the slow responses to MSPs on a committee set up to look at the way the complaints about Mr Salmond were handled.

“The flawed procedure, the one that let the women down, has never changed,” Ms Davidson said.

The government acted ‘unlawfully’

Key legal documents released in recent days showed that on December 17 2018 the government’s senior lawyer, Roddy Dunlop QC, warned the first minister about pushing ahead regardless of advice the case would likely be lost.

The Scottish Government conceded the judicial review almost a month later, on January 8. Mr Salmond was awarded a pay-out of more than £500,000 at the Court of Session in Edinburgh.

I will be haunted for probably the rest of my life about the way in which the government through an error, an error made in good faith but nevertheless an error, let down those women.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

That was after the court ruled the government had acted “unlawfully” in the way it dealt with the complaints, noting the investigating officer appointed had already had prior contact with the women involved.

Ms Davidson said: “We have since learned that from the moment Roddy Dunlop wrote that note on December 17 to the time when the government finally conceded, the bill exceeded £100,000, perhaps even £200,000, but we don’t know for sure because the government won’t tell us their side of the bill.”

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs the advice from the government’s law officers as late as December 11 2018 was that ministers should “continue to defend the case” and there were “credible arguments” to be made in all areas.

She added the application of the procedure was “flawed” but never got to be fully tested at the judicial review.

“I will be haunted for probably the rest of my life about the way in which the government through an error, an error made in good faith but nevertheless an error, let down those women,” Sturgeon said.

“I have apologised for that. I wasn’t involved in the investigation so I wasn’t aware of the error at the time, but as head of the Scottish Government I take, and I feel, responsibility for that.”

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