SCOTLAND’S top civil servant apologised “unreservedly” for a procedural failure in the Government’s handling of complaints against Alex Salmond as she appeared before a Holyrood committee in the first day of oral evidence to an inquiry.

Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans yesterday said sorry in her opening statement to the probe being conducted by cross-party MSPs investigating the administration’s handling of allegations made against the former First Minister.

During the course of her evidence Evans told MSPs that the complaints made about Salmond by two female civil servants contained three potentially criminal allegations. The Permanent Secretary said these allegations were reported to Police Scotland.

After the oral evidence session, a spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “The Permanent Secretary was referring to three separate matters raised in the two complaints we received which were drawn to the attention of Police Scotland.”

Salmond maintained his innocence and won a judicial review against the Government over the handling of the complaints.

Giving evidence under oath, Evans said: “When complaints were raised it would have been unconscionable, and a failure in our duty of care, not to investigate those complaints. It was accepted at judicial review that one part of our procedure should have been applied differently. I apologise unreservedly to all concerned for this procedural failure.”

She added: “We have already learned early lessons from this experience as part of work being led by our people directorate. And we also await the findings of the review which I commissioned, externally led by Laura Dunlop QC, now under way. But it remains the case that the investigation of those complaints was the right thing to do.”

While the committee has spoken out about “the limited information the Scottish Government has offered”, Evans insisted the Scottish Government were committed to co-operating fully with the committee.

With the former First Minister having been cleared of alleged sexual offences by a High Court jury in March this year, the proceedings began with committee convener SNP MSP Linda Fabiani stressing: “The committee will not revisit the separate matter of the criminal proceedings brought against Mr Salmond, nor reinvestigate or consider the substance of the complaints originally made to the Scottish Government.”

READ MORE:This is why the Alex Salmond inquiry is being held

Evans later told Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser she did “not recognise” claims by the FDA union of a “culture of fear” experienced by some civil servants.

She also said she could not comment on claims that female staff were “advised not to be alone” with the former First Minister. Fabiani then told the Tory she was not sure his question was “entirely appropriate” given the committee’s remit.

Asked if complaints about bullying were raised with her, the Permanent Secretary said: “I don’t remember ever being given a specific complaint from a trade union about a specific bullying behaviour.”

But she added there had been cases “addressed at an informal level of bullying and harassment against ministers”. She said there had been two of these “I think” since 2007.

Responding to the FDA’s submission, Evans said: “I don’t recognise the term ‘culture of fear’, it is not one I would use. The most recent snapshot of how the organisation is feeling is very different to what the FDA has described in historical terms.”

LibDem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton asked about the development of Scottish Government policy on harassment by former ministers.

He said one of the women who complained, Ms B, had first notified officials of her complaint against the former First Minister around November 7, 2017 – adding this was “at the height of the development of the policy”. Evans said a “concern was raised by a whole range of people in November 2017” against the backdrop of #MeToo.

She continued: “I was made aware of contact that had taken place between Mr Salmond and certain Scottish Government members of staff in very early November.

“He had contacted them because he wanted to talk to them about a piece of media work which was going on, which was being undertaken by Sky News.

“I was told by two different sources, one of them extremely concerned, that they had received this contact and they were a bit bewildered and unhappy about it. I didn’t know what was said, I didn’t ask, I didn’t think it was appropriate to know.

“I mentioned that, that Mr Salmond had been in touch with staff about an Edinburgh Airport incident that Sky News were investigating, I did mention that to the First Minister. I told her about that, I said I was concerned mostly because the staff were anxious about it. I was also concerned it could become a story.”

Sky News later ran a story about sexual misconduct claims against Salmond – which he denied – involving female employees at the airport around 2008.

Cole-Hamilton pressed her on whether the policy on harassment by former ministers was “designed to get Alex Salmond”.

The MSP said: “The optics of this are not great. Was this targeted policy which only applied to harassment complaints against former ministers engineered to fit any complaint? Was it designed to get Alex Salmond?”

Evans replied: “Absolutely not.”