Alex Salmond was known for “bullying and intimidatory behaviour” and angry outbursts against civil servants who worked for him, Scotland’s former chief civil servant has told MSPs.
Sir Peter Housden, who worked as permanent secretary for the Scottish government when Salmond was first minister, told a Holyrood inquiry the day-to-day running of Salmond’s private office in Edinburgh was “punctuated by this kind of behaviour”.
Giving evidence on oath, Housden said there were no “egregious” incidents involving Salmond which needed formal investigation, nor were there formal complaints against the former first minister or any suggestions of sexual misconduct.
Housden acknowledged he did not directly witness any incidents of bullying and harassment, but he told the committee: “I knew that the former first minister could display bullying and intimidatory behaviour, yes.”
He added later: “I was well aware that those behaviours took place; I had a number of conversations with people who had been on the receiving end of that.”
The committee is investigating the Scottish government’s mishandling of an internal investigation in 2018 into allegations of sexual misconduct against Salmond, and also Nicola Sturgeon’s actions before, during and after that investigation.
The inquiry found Salmond had a case to answer in August 2018 and its report triggered a police investigation into complaints of alleged sexual misconduct against the former first minister – complaints Salmond has consistently denied.
In January 2019 Salmond won a judicial review against the Scottish government after it admitted a key part of its inquiry was mishandled; he was later given £512,000 to cover his legal costs. In March 2020, Salmond was acquitted of 14 charges of sexual assault, including one of attempted rape, after a two-week trial at the high court in Edinburgh.
Tensions rose several times during Tuesday’s hearing after Housden refused to confirm whether he warned Sturgeon about the alleged bullying incidents involving Salmond.
Housden took over as the Scottish government’s permanent secretary in late 2010, just as the government’s new anti-bullying procedure, part of a new “fairness at work” policy which included ministers, came into force. That policy would have required Sturgeon to be told of any complaints about Salmond’s conduct.
He said he was required by civil service rules to protect the confidentiality of ministers but agreed that under normal circumstances it would be appropriate to notify Sturgeon. He conceded he did raise those issues with a senior minister.
“It would be appropriate in all the settings I’ve worked to speak to a senior member of the administration concerned, yes, but I’m not confirming thereby who I spoke to on these matters in Scotland,” he said.
Alex Cole-Hamilton, a Liberal Democrat MSP, accused Housden of “hiding behind this defence of confidentiality” but was blocked by Linda Fabiani, the committee’s Scottish National party convenor, from pressing Housden to confirm Sturgeon had been told. “We are not putting Mr Salmond on trial at this committee so can we be less specific about people,” Fabiani said.
Housden said he knew of concerns about only a handful of Scottish ministers but said he had never heard of any allegations or rumours of sexual misconduct against any of them, including Salmond.
Civil servants were proud of working for the first minister and “energised” by their job, Housden added. It was, however, extremely demanding and he made sure any concerns about ministers’ conduct were raised with the minister concerned.
Implying he had spoken to Salmond too, Housden said: “I would ensure that the minister concerned knew that I knew.”
He said the civil service had a legal duty of care to its staff. “I think the civil service is entitled to expect ministers are able to control their behaviour and where that had gone beyond reasonable bounds but had not triggered a complaint, it didn’t seem to me unreasonable that that should be a fact that was known about.”