Former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond on Wednesday announced plans to take legal action over the conduct of Scotland’s top civil servant in an investigation into sexual harassment complaints against him that was later ruled to be unlawful.
Salmond’s threat of court action centred on Leslie Evans, Scotland’s permanent secretary, marks a new chapter in his bitter rift with the government he used to lead and with his successor and former protégé Nicola Sturgeon.
It comes just as the governing Scottish National party begins campaigning for May elections to the parliament in Edinburgh that it hopes will pave the way for a second referendum on independence from the UK.
In a statement, Salmond avoided any direct mention of Sturgeon and did not reprise his allegations that she broke Scotland’s ministerial code and that her closest associates plotted to drive him from public life.
Sturgeon’s independent adviser on the ministerial code, former top Irish prosecutor James Hamilton, on Monday cleared her of any breach of it.
A Scottish parliamentary committee was on Tuesday strongly critical of Sturgeon’s response to the complaints against Salmond and concluded by a majority that she misled them in her evidence. But it unanimously dismissed Salmond’s claims that messages among SNP officials were evidence they had colluded to whip up criminal complaints against him.
Despite the “manifest limitations” of the two inquiries and a third that called for changes to the way the Scottish government deals with sexual harassment complaints, their findings “must be accepted”, Salmond said.
The former first minister’s decision to focus his fire on Evans may ease fears in the governing SNP of a further escalation of the rift with Sturgeon, which some in the party fear could undermine its chances of winning a parliamentary majority on May 6.
The SNP is leading in the polls and a majority would give it a powerful platform to push for a second referendum.
Salmond said he did not intend to make any further public comment on the handling of the complaints process against him.
“I intend to move on, just as Scotland should now move on to debate the key election issues before us all, principally economic recovery from the pandemic and the future independence of our country,” Salmond said in his statement.
In January 2019, the Scottish government conceded in court that its investigation into the complaints against Salmond by two female officials had been unlawful because it was “procedurally unfair” and “tainted by apparent bias”. At a criminal trial last year, the former first minister was acquitted of all 13 sexual offence charges against him.
Salmond did not give details of what legal action he intended over Evans’ conduct or whether it would be directed at her or the government.
“I will shortly be instructing my lawyers to bring proceedings in the Court of Session arising as a direct result of the conduct of the permanent secretary,” he said.
The Scottish parliamentary inquiry unanimously highlighted failings in the development and application of the government’s investigation procedure.
It also cited Evans as knowing that the official who investigated the complaints against Salmond had already had contact with his accusers and that she should have made sure this was disclosed earlier to lawyers.
“This individual failing is as significant as the general corporate failing,” the committee said.
Evans did not immediately comment on Salmond’s statement.
The Scottish government said Sturgeon retained her confidence in Evans, who had “operated at all times in line with the civil service code and legal advice received”.
“It would be inappropriate to comment on a hypothetical legal action,” the government said.
Salmond said Evans should accept “real responsibility”, adding: “This cannot stand.”
He also said he would make a formal complaint to the police over the 2018 leaking of the investigation against him to the Daily Record newspaper.