Union raises alarm over Scottish ministerial bullying complaints

By on 20/08/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Dave Penman: “The people of Northern Ireland deserve better and that requires a strong, permanent, professional and impartial civil service.” (Photo by John Wellings).

The FDA union, which represents high-ranking UK civil servants, says it has received “more complaints about bullying” by Scottish government ministers than across all other UK ministerial departments combined.  

Dave Penman, FDA general secretary, told the Times there had been 30 ministerial bullying complaints by workers in five Scottish departments over the past decade. Though the numbers are relatively small, this compares with only “a handful of issues” raised within other UK and devolved government departments across the FDA’s membership over the same period – a disparity that Penman described as “quite extraordinary”.

The complaints referred to “a whole range of behaviour: shouting and bawling, unreasonable demands, calls at three in the morning — and concerns that these complaints would not be dealt with properly and if raised could damage future careers”, Penman said.


The intervention by the FDA comes in the week a dedicated cross-party committee formed of Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) began its inquiry into the government’s handling in 2018 of two misconduct claims against former Scottish National Party (SNP) leader and first minister Alex Salmond. The hearings will also cast light on civil servants’ bullying accusations.

Salmond won a judicial review against the Scottish government over the investigation, successfully arguing that it had breached its own guidelines by appointing an investigator who’d had prior involvement in the case. The government was required to settle Salmond’s legal fees, amounting to more than £500,000 (US$655,000). 

In a March court case described as the most significant criminal trial in Scottish political history, a jury subsequently cleared Salmond of sexual assault charges made against him by nine current and former SNP officials. Salmond had been charged with 13 offences, including rape.

Salmond’s allies suggest he was the victim of a plot within the SNP to deny him a political comeback following his resignation as leader after defeat in the 2014 independence referendum – a claim vigorously denied by current SNP leader and first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Claims of unacceptable conduct by ministers

It is understood that the MSP committee will also examine claims of unacceptable conduct towards civil servants by SNP ministers since Sturgeon took over from Salmond as first minister in 2014.

In July, economy secretary Fiona Hyslop was accused by an SNP aide of intimidation and harassment. A month previously, complaints had been made against rural economy minister Fergus Ewing by civil servants at the Marine Scotland agency.

The FDA’s Penman called for an independent inquiry. Politicians should “not be marking their own homework,” he said. He added in a tweet that the Scottish Parliament’s inquiry “must be about fact finding and not point scoring. Civil servants have raised extensive concerns about ministerial behaviour, and the committee needs to ensure conclusions reached are based on the facts presented, not political partisanship”.  

Breach of the Civil Service Code?

On Tuesday, Leslie Evans, permanent secretary to the Scottish government, gave evidence before the MSP committee. Civil Service World reported on 20 August that Evans had been reported to UK Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service Mark Sedwill by Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, who suggested she may have broken the Civil Service Code by refusing to answer a question from a committee member.

Evans would not comment when asked by Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament Murdo Fraser about claims made during the court case against Salmond that there had been a policy that female civil servants should not work alone with him.

“The Scottish public deserve answers. They won’t get the full truth if civil servants are allowed to evade scrutiny,” Ross said.

The committee convener Linda Fabiani blocked the question put to Evans, arguing that it was not appropriate given the inquiry’s remit – a view disputed by other committee members. A Scottish Government spokesperson said Evans would “be happy to write to the committee to address this issue if the convener wishes”.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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