Holyrood must focus on the Alex Salmond harassment claims, not point-scoring

The Guardian, by Dani Garavelli

From the moment the Alex Salmond sexual harassment allegationsexploded into the public domain, the former first minister has been attacking the process of the investigation. While strongly denying the two staff members’ claims, he has channelled much of his energy into challenging the internal inquiry process through a judicial review. Salmond says new Scottish government procedures on complaints against former ministers, introduced in January, should not have been applied retrospectively and insists he was denied the opportunity to mount a defence. He has implied that if a court rules the internal inquiry was unfair or unlawful, the allegations will be nullified. But the report has already been handed to Police Scotland; and its investigation is separate and ongoing.

After the Daily Record, which broke the story, went on to publish the detailed allegations of an incident in the bedroom of his official residence in 2013, Salmond also demanded an inquiry into the “leak”, which he said could only have come from Scottish government sources.

Of course, if the procedures do turn out to be flawed – and/or confidential information has been passed on in the hope of damaging him – then that is a matter of concern. Yet by seeking a judicial review, Salmond has prevented the full findings being passed to Nicola Sturgeon and from her to the SNP. This, according to the first minister, means there is no legal basis for Salmond to be suspended from the party. And it has also shifted public attention away from the substance of the claims, and on to the way in which they were reported and investigated.

This shift in focus has also resulted from others commenting on the case. On Sunday, Noel Dolan, close ally and former special adviser to Sturgeon, told a newspaper he had known Salmond for over 35 years and had never seen him act inappropriately. If the former first minister were to be cleared, Dolan claimed, Leslie Evans, the senior civil servant in charge of the internal inquiry, should resign. Yet, by their nature, claims of sexual harassment and assault are difficult to substantiate. If officials were expected to give up their post every time a complaint failed to reach the threshold for action, there would be a sharp decline in confidence at a time when Westminster and Holyrood are trying to convince complainants their claims will be taken seriously.

The main opposition parties have also played a part. Scottish Labour lodged freedom of information requests to find out what was said on the occasions Sturgeon and Salmond are believed to have met to discuss the investigation. The Scottish Conservatives called for an independent review, demanding to know if the allegations had been brought to the Scottish government’s attention before January 2018 (the Scottish government has already confirmed they hadn’t).

Within the ranks of the SNP a civil war has brewed, with people either backing Salmond or seeking to condemn him based on their pre-existing loyalties. Others engaged in whataboutery, pointing out that Scottish Labour was in no position to criticise given its own imperfect handling of allegations that the then deputy leader Alex Rowley had carried out a harassment campaign against an ex-partner which he denied.

All of this only serves to move attention away from the accusation, and on to the process. Only the Liberal Democrat deputy leader Jo Swinson – who is outspoken on gender equality issues – cut through the axe-grinding. She said: “People who have been victims of sexual harassment are watching how these allegations are managed and responded to by the authorities and politicians. Collectively, we must never do anything that deters or discourages people from reporting sexual harassment.”

Swinson is right: such investigations should be a no-go area for political point-scoring. Ever since the sexual harassment scandal broke at Westminster, leading figures at Holyrood, including Sturgeon and former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, have been working to create a culture of accountability in the Scottish parliament. Their efforts were driven by a survey that suggested one in five people who worked there had experienced sexual harassment or sexist behaviour and by the resignation of the childcare and early years minister Mark McDonald over harassment allegations. As a result the new procedures were introduced and more women appointed to Holyrood’s corporate body. But it takes more than new reporting procedures to create a climate in which women feel able to come forward – it requires everyone to exercise some restraint.

But there is still time to refocus on what’s important. Concerns about process, leaks and the impact on the SNP are sideshows. They are not illegitimate, but they deflect from the key questions: did the then most powerful man in Scotland use his position to sexually harass two members of staff – accusations he denies? But if he did, what can be done to prevent it ever happening again?