NICOLA Sturgeon is facing questions after it emerged she promoted a cabinet minister despite knowing bullying allegations had been made against him.

Civil servants raised a complaint about Rural Economy and Tourism Secretary Fergus Ewing late last year, it has been reported.

HeraldScotland: Camley's Cartoon: Minister accused of bullyingCamley's Cartoon: Minister accused of bullying

Critics said the First Minister's decision was evidence of a "morally and politically bankrupt government".

Mr Ewing said he completely rejected the latest claims, while the Scottish Government confirmed a process to deal with them is underway.

In 2018, Mr Ewing apologised for his “forthright” attitude after a bullying claim was made against him.

His portfolio was recently expanded to include tourism – which is worth around £11 billion to Scotland’s economy – in a reshuffle prompted by Derek Mackay's resignation over texts to a 16-year-old boy.

It has now emerged Ms Sturgeon knew about the latest bullying claims when she handed Mr Ewing his beefed-up duties. Asked if the First Minister was aware of the allegations when she conducted the reshuffle, her spokesman said: “Yes.”

He added: “I’ve made the position clear. The First Minister has been aware that there is a process underway." He rejected suggestions that this meant Ms Sturgeon had prejudged the complaints, or was not taking them seriously.

He said: “Of course you take these things seriously. Of course you do.”

Asked if it was appropriate to hand Mr Ewing an enhanced portfolio, Ms Sturgeon's spokesman said: “Clearly the First Minister proceeded on the basis she did in the reshuffle.

“Clearly she wouldn’t do anything she regarded as inappropriate.”

He would not confirm how many complainants are involved, or when the allegations were made.

Sky News reported that a number of employees at Marine Scotland in Edinburgh made complaints towards the end of last year.

Speaking to journalists in Holyrood, Mr Ewing said: "I completely reject all claims against me. A process is underway and that is entirely right and proper when such allegations are made.

"That process is at an early stage. I will make no further comment whilst that process is ongoing."

The Inverness and Nairn MSP was asked if he would step down while this process is underway, but did not answer.

Scottish Tory deputy leader Annie Wells said Ms Sturgeon's decision was "more evidence that the SNP is a morally and politically bankrupt government".

She said: “Essentially, when confronted with this information about Fergus Ewing, Nicola Sturgeon handed him a promotion.

"Given her government’s shambolic handling of the Derek Mackay scandal, there will be huge pressure to get this one right. So far that’s certainly not been the case.”

The Scottish Government’s ministerial code makes clear bullying will not be tolerated.

It says Ms Sturgeon is the “ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a minister and of the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards”.

Official procedures for dealing with bullying complaints against ministers outline a five-stage process.

A formal complaint is only submitted to HR in stage four, if attempts to resolve the situation informally have failed. At this point, the complaint is passed to Leslie Evans, permanent secretary to the Scottish Government, and deputy first minister John Swinney.

If an alternative resolution is not found, the pair will appoint a "deciding committee" made up of a cabinet secretary, a director general and the director of HR. Where necessary, an investigator will also be appointed.

The deciding committee will meet with those involved, review the evidence and produce a report.

Ms Evans and Mr Swinney or Ms Sturgeon will then consider the report and what action should be taken.

Mr Swinney stood at Mr Ewing's side as he faced the cameras on Thursday in an apparent show of solidarity. The Scottish Government failed to answer a question on whether he should now remove himself from the process.

Earlier, a spokesman said: "A process is underway - as is right and proper whenever such allegations are made – and is at an early, informal stage.

“No further comment will be made on this matter while this process is continuing."