Civil servant John Somers – Nicola Sturgeon’s former principal private secretary (PPS) has been promoted by her to the post of Deputy Director of the newly created Police Division of the Scottish Government
Somers, who gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament inquiry into the handling of harassment allegations against Alex Salmond in December last year, became deputy director in the police division in August.
He had served as Sturgeon’s principal private secretary since February 2017.
It is the latest change among the first minister’s closest aides since the May election, with Colin McAllister recently replacing Liz Lloyd as chief of staff.
It has also recently been confirmed that the government’s most senior civil servant, Leslie Evans, is stepping down, having survived calls to quit over her role in the handling of harassment allegations against Alex Salmond.
John Somers pivotal role and conduct in the Sturgeon Salmond debacle
16 Nov 2017: Hynd emailed (Private Secretary 1 to Leslie Evans). (Policy on Complaints Against Ministers.” As requested”. James.
16 Nov: Hynd circulated to the Scottish Government civil service senior management team, and Liz Lloyd (first sight, at her request) a second draft procedure titled “Handling of sexual harassment complaints involving current or former ministers.”
16 Nov: A copy of the draft policy was forwarded to the UK Government’s Cabinet Office in Westminster for approval.
17 Nov: Approval was not forthcoming. Instead the response expressed grave concerns about implications for politicians throughout the UK if the Scottish Government would be permitted to act in isolation from the other governments of GB and Northern Ireland introducing a process for complaints about ministers and former ministers which had not been universally approved. The cabinet Office instructed that the policy changes should be deferred until such time as the other governments had completed their own reviews. Reference was also made to the unfairness of the revised policies which demanded standards of personal conduct for Scottish politicians greatly in excess of those for civil servants which had remained unchanged. Double standards were not acceptable. The document was unfit for introduction.
Afternote: The Westminster “Cabinet Office” exposed the hypocrisy of the intent behind the proposed changes and rightly blocked the proposals.
17 Nov: Hynd forwarded the Cabinet Office response to an unnamed private secretary in the Scottish Government, (possibly Somers) who replied: “Oh dear, I did wonder if that would be their reaction. Not sure how long their review will take but the First Minister and Leslie Evans are keen to resolve quickly and discuss on Tuesday. I suspect we don’t have a policy on former civil servants. But we are looking at this in the context of the overall review of policies and the justification for having something about Ministers is the action that Parliament is taking in light of allegations about MSP conduct which includes a recent SG Minister?”.
Afternote 1: Questioned by the Inquiry Hynd said: “Nicola Sturgeon was keen to take national leadership on the matter and delaying implementation of the new procedure was not an option for consideration.”
Comment: But of note was that the procedure for civil servants was not updated to include retrospective consideration of harassment allegations.
Afternote 2: Lloyd stated that the inclusion of herself in the circulation of the draft procedure created a requirement to identify and amend the ministerial code, if necessary since the code was the responsibility of the First Minister.
Comment: But the Ministerial Code and the proposed complaints procedure were the business of the Civil Service and Miss Lloyd had no legitimate input.
20 Nov: Somers said complainer, Ms A, arranged a meeting with him at which she told him of her past experiences in a way that would improve the organization and make sure that no one else would have to go through that sort of thing again.
She stressed she was not making a complaint, she simply wanted to assess her options for how she could best share the information. Her wish was to be allowed to speak to the First Minister which was why she had approached him.
Somers (gatekeeper to the First Minister) said he had not briefed the First Minister about his meeting with Ms A or her request for a private meeting with the First Minister upholding his commitment to her to keep the details of their conversation secret. He said: “I wouldn’t tell the First Minister because it wasn’t my experience to share. That was my first priority. Secondly, had I done that, I would have put the First Minister in a state of knowledge about something she couldn’t have taken action upon at that point.”
Somers went on to state he was “overwhelmed” by Ms A’s disclosure and with her permission he advised his line manager Barbara Allison and the Director of Safer Communities, Gillian Russell.
Comment: If factually correct Somers escalated matters and failed in his duties as gatekeeper to the First Minster by not allowing Ms A to meet privately with the First Minister.
21 Nov: Somers and two unnamed officers met with Ms A and advised she would need to further discuss the matter with his line manager Barbara Allison, with a proviso that if she felt she was not being taken seriously or no one was listening to her, she should get back in touch with Somers who would set-up a personal meeting for her with the First Minister. He never heard from her.
Somers went on to say that he did not tell the First Minister that Ms A had confided in him because it wasn’t his experience to share and had he done so he would have put the First Minister in a state of knowledge about something she could not have taken action upon at that point?”
Afternote 1: This is weird. Ms A advised Gillian Russell on 10 November. Somers decision not to inform the First Minister denied Miss A the informal meeting she had asked for and escalated events from informal to formal. His reasoning was flawed since it was based on a rebuttable assumption. His choice of words is also significant. “at that point” would be a reference to the draft policy which he was working on with Lloyd. He fine well knew what he was doing.
Afternote 2: In her statement to the inquiry the Scottish Government’s Director for Communications, Ministerial Support & Facilities, Barbara Allison, who was Director of People from 2009 to 2016, said that Alex Salmond was a “visionary and dynamic” and although demanding and difficult to work for people also expressed that they enjoyed working for him. She had never heard of sexual misconduct concerns about him while he was the First Minister. Nor had she heard of any concerns being escalated to the status of formal complaints while she was in charge of human resources.
Afternote 3: Allison said she had not raised any issues of bullying or harassment with either Evans or Nicola Sturgeon and for clarity, she emphasized to the inquiry that she was not aware of any issues about sexual harassment” and added that she was a “huge advocate” for informal resolution, stating that if a matter could be resolved through this process, then “absolutely people must have recourse to a formal process”.
She went on to tell the inquiry that she was first notified of concerns in November 2017 when two unnamed female civil servants, (Ms A and Ms B) raised them with her.
It is for readers to question whether it is “plausible” that Nicola Sturgeon did not know until April 2, 2018, about the internal probe into her predecessor, (some 5 months after allegations were first raised about Alex Salmond.). If she did know she misled the public in her evidence to the inquiry
22 Nov: Nicola Sturgeon’s “instruction from the First Minister” was sent to to Leslie Evans. It read:
“As is clear from the continued media focus on cases of sexual harassment, in many instances, people are now making complaints regarding actions that took place some time ago. I wanted to make clear that in taking forward your review, and the new arrangements being developed, you should not be constrained by the passage of time. I would like you to consider ways in which we are able to address if necessary any concerns from staff, should any be raised, about the conduct of current Scottish Government ministers and also former ministers, including from previous administrations regardless of party. While I appreciate that the conduct of former Ministers would not be covered by the current Ministerial Code, I think it fair and reasonable that any complaints raised about their actions while they held office are considered against the standards expected of Ministers. I would be grateful for confirmation that this particular aspect is being included as part of the review you are leading.”
Note: The letter of instruction makes no sense since the newly written draft procedure was already in place and circulated within the senior Civil Servant management team. And James Hynd, the person who wrote the new procedure was not copied into the correspondence.
24 Nov: A fifth draft of Hynd’s, policy delegates authority to the Permanent Secretary to investigate complaints but makes clear the First Minister should also be alerted. A copy was also sent to the First Minister.
23 Nov: Nicola Richards sent an e-mail to Leslie Evans, copied to Judith Mackinnon “we would need to consult with the individual before disclosing to another party or the Police because of the risk of the matter getting into the press and the individuals being identified.
We have a duty of care for our staff which means we shouldn’t do something that puts them at risk, so if they don’t want us to share information or go to the police, it would be very difficult to justify (sic) doing so (without putting them at risk of being identified and wider impacts).
This was subsequently changed on 9th January 2018 to read “SG as employer will not refer specific cases to police without the knowledge/consent of the employee.”
24 Nov: Lloyd, Somers, Hynd and a member of the Permanent Secretary’s office, attended a meeting to further discuss the content of the “instruction from the First Minister” and to establish and agree clear lines of responsibility between the First Minister and the Permanent Secretary. A second purpose was to reword the second draft procedure inserting changes designed to prevent the First Minister from stopping the Permanent Secretary, who has a duty of care to civil servants, from investigating a sexual harassment complaint made by a civil servant against a minister if the Permanent Secretary judged there was something to investigate.
Additional input from Liz Lloyd included the view that it was essential that the First Minister should be made aware of an investigation or allegation into a serving minister, before the event, in order to determine if, under the ministerial code, that minister could remain in post whilst an investigation was conducted. Yet she later stipulated that on that date she had no knowledge, of any of the allegations against Alex Salmond that were subsequently investigated under the new procedure.
29 Nov: Gillian Russell wrote to Ms A “as agreed, I sent your narrative on in confidence to Nicky (Richards) and Judith (Mackinnon). I have now been asked by Nicky and Judith if you would be prepared to speak to them following receipt of your narrative. As part of this discussion Nicky would like to share with you the developing policy for handling complaints against former and current ministers. This would give you an opportunity to test whether this would have helped at the time and also to consider next steps.” Later that day Ms A agreed to do so but reiterated her wish to speak first personally with Nicola Sturgeon.
29 Nov: Ms Richards, met with Ms Evans, who then went on to have a “summit meeting with the First Minister, “to discuss the development of the proposed procedure”.
30 Nov: Richards emailed Hynd, the Head of the Cabinet Secretariat: “Would you be able to send me the latest version of the process I agreed with Leslie Evans that I would test against some key individuals?”
01 Dec: Hynd sent the “eighth” harassment policy draft to Ms Richards.
04/05 Dec: Richards, redrafted parts of the “eighth” draft procedure completing her work 2334 hours on the evening of 5 Dec. She then forwarded it under cover of an email, to Evans, Hynd, MacKinnon, and an unnamed lawyer. The email stated: “As discussed earlier today, I’ve made some revisions to the process.”
06 Dec: Richards, met with Ms B and shared with her the content of the revised 8th draft procedure, seeking and gaining from Ms B confirmation that had the procedures been in place at the time she claimed she had been sexually harassed it would have been of benefit providing clear instructions as to the courses of action available to her.
06 Dec: Mackinnon, met with Ms A and after sharing the draft procedures gained from her confirmation that had the new procedures been in place at the time she was sexually harassed it would have been of benefit providing clear instructions as to the courses of action available to her.
06 Dec: At 0528 hours Evans emailed Richards, Hynd, and a third person writing, “Spoke with John S (Swinney?) last night. We agreed you would send up tweaked codes in draft without any letters just now. and as discussed, info on the steps and touchpoints involved in the process also useful. Keep me posted back in the office tomorrow but happy to talk. John (Swinney?) also I’m sure.”
Afternote 1: Evans told the inquiry team that she did not see a “natural role” for Special Advisor (Liz Lloyd) in the Scottish Government response to the judicial review brought by Alex Salmond. But a freedom of information response listed 17 meetings at which lawyers involved in the judicial review met with Nicola Sturgeon or senior staff, with Liz Lloyd present at three meetings in Oct and Nov 2018. Evans, faced with the facts, was forced to correct her evidence to confirm that Nicola Sturgeon’s political special advisor, Liz Lloyd, did fully participate in meetings at which the allegations against Alex Salmond were discussed.
Afternote 2: Somers told the inquiry that he had no involvement in the development of the procedure used against Alex Salmond. This is not true. Somers, in his capacity as Sturgeon’s Principal Private Secretary, had a key role in developing the policy at a critical time.
5 Dec 2017: The “letters” that Somers was subsequently instructed “not” to send to Sturgeon were the “tweaked codes” which Somers and Hynd had been instructed by Evans to draft in line with the procedure as it had existed prior to her discussion with Somers, and for the purpose of intimating the new procedure to former Ministers and former First Ministers when it would be approved by the First Minister in due course. The “letters” disappeared from the development process after the discussions and the Scottish Government has persistently refused to disclose the contents.
Exactly what comprised the “steps and touchpoints involved in the process” was discussed by Evans and Somers but the content remains guesswork since no-one at the Inquiry asked Somers, or has ever asked Evans, what was meant by these terms. But what is clear is that both Evans herself and Somers were “happy to talk” to Richards, Hynd, and the third person about these “steps and touchpoints” in the radically recast procedure.
There is a hugely significant context of the very obvious involvement of Somers, acting on behalf of Sturgeon, in the development, actually, in the complete recast of the procedure. For now, it is worth noting that Somers’s evidence on affirmation was given, as Somers himself pointed out, with the specific advance endorsement of the Scottish Government.
Civil Service jargon for “not my words guvnor !!””