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The SNP mess has left me flabbergasted – what kind of message does it send?

Jess Phillips
·5-min read
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, giving evidence to the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, at Holyrood  ( Jeff J Mitchell/PA)
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, giving evidence to the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, at Holyrood ( Jeff J Mitchell/PA)

I have handled complaints about sexual harassment, abuse and violence about people who I knew, liked and worked well with. I have never, nor would I ever, discuss the case with the accused.

Believe me when I say that over the years the accused in various cases have appealed to me for understanding, tried to reach out to me, asked me to meet with them, wanted to talk to me about the process. One of those who did that is currently in prison for sexual crimes. I didn’t speak to him.

The reason I didn’t speak to him or any others who tried to appeal to me is because it would have been wildly inappropriate when I had been trusted with a complaint. The very first thing I have to do in these cases is to offer complete confidentiality to a complainant. I recuse myself of processes where I would not be the appropriate person to assist and in those cases I find the complainant someone better.

I know – because I am an elected legislator – that the process in these matters must be respected and adhered to with confidentiality and caution. It would be deeply unprofessional and risk damaging the process if I did anything else. My personal feelings are not important, my feelings on the matter play second fiddle to the processes. This is basic stuff.

I have watched in horror at the fall out of the Scottish National Party caused by the accusations of sexual misconduct by Alex Salmond (Salmond was acquitted of all charges of sexual assault following a trial last year). I cannot believe the litany of failures in professionalism and decency. The varying and changing story over what happened and who knew what and when is flabbergasting.

In her evidence to the committee of the Scottish parliament tasked with looking at the handling of the accusations against Salmond, Sturgeon admitted that she discussed Salmond’s criticisms of the inquiry with him five times, she said it was because she felt loyalty towards him. A loyalty it would seem that came before due process.

She also admitted that she didn’t tell permanent secretary Leslie Evans about her meetings with Salmond because she worried that would be seen as her interfering in the process. You think? Nothing about this speaks to the actions of a professional most concerned with serious allegations and how to make sure processes are fair. Instead what we have been privy to for the past year is a bunch of people who appear to care more about themselves and their own positions than about the women who came forward with complaints.

As Nicola Sturgeon forgets meetings and Salmond accuses her of a plot against him – what, if any, confidence do we think civil servants of the Scottish government and, frankly, the women of Scotland have to come forward and speak up. What message is currently being sent about the level of professionalism, confidentiality or concern that will be afforded to a victim who comes forward.

If you were a woman working in Holyrood today and you had a complaint about sexual misconduct, would this encourage you to come forward?

I have watched as people who would never normally care about sexual harassment and bullying suddenly are overnight feminists because it will harm their opponents. I have seen cases where people who claimed to care for women’s rights suddenly didn’t because it was their mate who had breached them.

But never have I seen such a series of failures as what has happened in Scotland. None of this charade is to do with making sure that the staff in Holyrood are safe, or that better processes for complaints are put in place, none of this is about women’s or workers’ rights.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less whether Sturgeon or Salmond waves the flag better, I care about the message this sends – that complainants details will be shared, your case will become a battle and secret or forgotten meetings between those who should know better will apparently matter more than if you are safe at work.

What a mess, where the central issue of sexual abuse and harassment is playing second fiddle to a game of thrones. I read that the analysis of Sturgeon giving hours of evidence of how she forgot or kept quiet about meetings; the analysis is littered with the sense from Sturgeon’s team that she did a good job and no fatal blow was landed on her during the session. I guess that’s the main thing here: if Nicola Sturgeon has a good day at work.

I have yet to hear about plans to overhaul procedures to make sure this terrible litany of failures never happens again. I have seen nothing that is trying to send the message that people should feel able to speak up if they are scared or abused. I have seen nothing that makes me think that the rights of women to be safe at work are more pressing to the Scottish government than who wins this row.

They should all be ashamed, if not at the moral failings but the total lack of professionalism. But they aren’t, instead they look seemingly hubristic.

Somewhere in Scottish politics a young women will be watching on, deciding that she just can’t bear for the same to happen to her. While political voices ring out giving evidence against each other it’s the voices it silences that worry me most.

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