Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of “creating a bully charter” after using data protection laws to suggest the outcome of allegations against a former SNP minister may remain classified.
In 2020, the then Minister of Rural Economy and Tourism, Fergus Ewing, was subjected to a complaint of bullying by civil servants. At the time, a spokesperson for Mr Ewing said the SNP MSP “totally rejects the allegations”.
Reports suggest that the investigation, which has been escalated into a formal process, is now complete – but the chief minister declined to comment on the outcome, citing GDPR rules, fueling the possibility that the outcome of any bullying complaints will never be made public.
But SNP MP Joanna Sherry has called for the results of any bullying allegations to be made public.
Writing on Twitter, Sherry said, “Bullying is an important issue in politics.” Of course all allegations should be investigated, and if the fact of an allegation is in the public domain, the outcome of the investigation should be made public.
“This is fair to all parties involved.”
Bullying is an important issue in politics. Of course all allegations must be investigated, and if the fact of an allegation is in the public domain, the outcome of the investigation must be made public. This is fair to all involved.
– Joanna Cherry QC (@joannaccherry) 12 May 2022
The leader of the Scottish Labor Party, Anas Sarwar, pressed the First Minister on the investigation into Mr Ewing’s case, initially asking her generally, how many investigations were under way with current and former ministers, how many investigations had been completed and what the results had been.
In response to the first minister’s questions, Ms Sturgeon insisted she was “not in a position to get into these issues” because she claimed there were “very significant legal issues with data protection that I am committed to”.
She added: “Governments have a duty to be transparent, but governments also have a duty to abide by privacy and data protection law.
“A complaint, by its nature, includes the personal data of both the complainant and the person complained about. Such personal information can only be made available outside the narrow confines of the complaint if there is a legal basis in the GDPR for doing so.
“Yes, there is the duty to be transparent but there is also the duty to abide by the law.”
But Mr Sarwar stressed that “no one is asking the chief minister to reveal confidential details” but said there was a need for the government to reveal the outcome of Mr Ewing’s “proof”.
The Labor leader referred to the words made by SNP leader Ian Blackford in Westminster regarding the allegations against UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, stressing the importance of ‘leading by example’.
Mr Sarwar said: “Following the allegations against Alex Salmond and then Derek Mackay and the results of bullying against UK government ministers, we need to restore confidence in politics and this should start with a transparent handling of complaints.
“Will you confirm today the result, not personal details, of the thug investigation into Fergus Ewing?
“Can she confirm whether there are any further inquiries into current and former Scottish ministers, and will she be bound to make public the outcome of any complaints that have been brought against ministers in this government?”
Ms Sturgeon insisted that she and her government “take seriously any complaints about any minister”.
She added, “This is evidenced by the development and publication of the updated procedure for dealing with complaints submitted by civil servants, whether regarding current or former ministers.
This is not a question about any complaints that, if raised, are not investigated. But this must be done within the law.
“If I answer questions about this, I will be in danger of violating this law.”
Mr Sarwar stressed that “the public deserves to know the outcome of the investigation relating to ministers and the Scottish national state government”, adding that it is “an issue of public transparency”.
He said: “It is indicative of a broader culture and the culture of secrecy and cover-up at the heart of this government. Instead, the first minister hid behind the GDPR and refused to reveal the outcome of the Fergus Ewing investigation.
The public deserves to know the outcome of this investigation for the sake of transparency.
“This lack of transparency creates a bully charter and allows senior officials to get away.
“The fact that Nicola Sturgeon cannot escape from it is that her government and the Scottish National Party operate in a culture of secrecy and cover-up.”
Mr. Sarwar added: “The cover-up when it comes to awarding government contracts, the cover-up when it comes to the deaths of children in hospital, the culture of contempt for journalists, and anyone who dares ask a tough question at this first minister.
“After 15 years in government, why does Nicola Sturgeon think this is a standard for her and another standard for everyone else?”
Asked by reporters about the complaints, Deputy First Minister John Sweeney, the new government’s chief minister for harassment policy, reiterated Ms Sturgeon’s argument that the government was “obligated to follow the law”.
He said he had “outlined in great detail” for Jan Holyrood, “an open and transparent approach to dealing with complaints within the Scottish government”.
Mr Sweeney added: “We have put in place an open policy and it has been vetted by Parliament, but basically the government must comply with GDPR rules in all circumstances.”
Mr Ewing could not be located for comment.