MEMBERS of the Holyrood inquiry into the Alex Salmond affair have been accused of “clear double-standards” in a row over the alleged coaching of Government witnesses.
The union representing senior civil servants said some MSPs were “frankly hypocritical” for complaining about Government officials getting outside help before testifying.
FDA general secretary Dave Penman said it was galling to see members of the inquiry line up to criticise the support when the inquiry had its own legal experts on tap.
He also revealed the FDA had pushed for officials to have legal support as the inquiry itself had decided to operate in a quasi-judicial manner, with evidence given undr oath.
Civil servants were now being made into “convenient scapegoats” for the MSPs’ own decisions, he said.
He said: “We have seen time and again the clear double standards in how the committee conducts itself compared to the expectations they impose on witnesses.”
The intervention followed the Daily Telegraph reporting yesterday that taxpayers had been billed almost £55,000 for “external assistance” for civil service witnesses to the inquiry.
Four of the six officials who benefitted, including the Government’s top mandarin, Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, later had to clarify oversights and errors in their evidence.
Tory MSP Murdo Fraser and Liberal Democrat Alex Cole-Hamilton, who both sit on the inquiry, criticised the use of public money for the so-called “coaching”.
Nicola Sturgeon was also dragged into the row after she refused to answer questions about it at the daily briefing, saying she did not know the details.
Nicola Sturgeon ducks questions over Alex Salmond inquiry witness ‘coaching’
Given the First Minister’s legendary grasp of detail, she was accused of a convenient memory lapse.
The inquiry is investigating the Scottish Government’s bungled handling of sexual misconduct claims against Mr Salmond in 2018.
The former First Minister had the probe set aside in a judicial review by showing it was “tainted by apparent bias”, leaviing taxpayers with a £512,000 bill for his costs.
Mr Penman, who gave evidence to the inquiry in September about bullying, did not name members in a statement released this afternoon, but his remarks were clearly aimed at the more voluble opposition party MSPs.
He said: “Once again civil servants find themselves as convenient scapegoats for the decisions of politicians.
“In what was already a complex legal minefield involving both criminal and civil litigation, the [inquiry]chose to conduct its hearings in a quasi-judicial fashion, requiring witnesses to give evidence under oath.
“In those circumstances, and as would be standard practice, we pressed [the]Scottish Government to ensure that civil servants were provided with legal support when considering their evidence.
“It is galling now to see committee members line up in the press to criticise the cost of this support when it was their decision in the first place that necessitated this expenditure.
“It is also frankly hypocritical when the committee itself has a lawyer attending hearings to advise on complex legal issues including potential breaches of court orders.”
Dave Penman gave evidence to the Salmond inquiry in September 2020
In September, Mr Penman told the inquiry Ms Sturgeon’s government has failed to get a grip of bullying by ministers, with staff were still subject to inappropriate behaviour three years after a new harassment policy was signed off by the First Minister.
He said some 30 staff in at least five ministerial offices had flagged concerns over a decade.
He said the numbers were “pretty dramatic” and “quite extraordinary” compared to other parts of the UK civil service, and suggested a deeper cultural problem in Scotland.
Once again we see hypocrisy and double standards from politicians in the Salmond inquiry. Criticising the costs of legal advice to civil servants when they demanded evidence under oath and have their own taxpayer-funded lawyer on hand for the hearings.
My full statement here: pic.twitter.com/dn9QYEUHbh
— Dave Penman (@FDAGenSec) January 15, 2021
He stressed the concerns were not all historical, and that some were “extant”.
In response to Mr Penman’s criticism today, Mr Cole-Hamilton defended his actions.
He said: “It’s regrettable that the most significant civil service union feels it’s at war with our committee.
“We are charged by parliament to seek the truth in respect of a series of calamitous decisions made by civil servants and Government ministers which cost the taxpayer more than £500,000.
“To learn that the Government have spent an additional 10 per cent of that with prepping for evidence that was not wholly forthcoming, I think is fair ground for us to ask questions.”