SEXUAL harassment and bullying complaints against Scottish ministers will be investigated outside the Government from next month to avoid a repeat of the Alex Salmond fiasco.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney today finally published details of the new process, three years after Mr Salmond won a legal action over the Government’s existing scheme.

The new independent procedure, developed with trade unions, will use external investigators and adjudicators, rather than let civil servants deal with complaints.

From February, it will apply to formal complaints of harassment, bullying and discrimination levelled against current and former ministers by government staff. 

The procedure says there is "no time limit for making a complaint of harassment", meaning former ministers going back to 1999 could be covered, while there is a time limit of six months for making a complaint of bullying or other unwanted conduct.

Based on the independent findings and decisions, the Government will then be responsible for taking action.

The Scottish Ministerial Code is to be updated to reflect the changes.   

The change follows a report last year by Laura Dunlop QC into the Salmond affair which said it was “essential” that future complaints be investigated and adjudicated externally.

She said the in-house system which went spectacularly wrong in the Salmond case was “self-evidently problematic”, with an “obvious” risk of perceived bias.

READ MORE: Alex Salmond affair review calls for independent complaints process

The report was seen as a rebuke to the Scottish Government’s top civil servant, the outgoing Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, who oversaw the botched Salmond probe.

The former First Minister was awarded £512,000 costs in 2019 after winning a judicial review into how two complaints made against him in 2018 were handled by officials.

Mr Salmond was able to show the civil service investigation had been flawed, unlawful, and “tainted by apparent bias” because of a glaring conflict of interest at its heart.

Mr Swinney said: “The Scottish Government has learned valuable lessons and is putting the interests of those making complaints at the heart of plans to improve the handling of future issues.

“The updated procedure is part of the organisation’s commitment to embedding a culture where bullying and harassment is not tolerated and where there is trust in how matters will be handled if things go wrong. 

“Where a complaint is necessary it is crucial those involved have confidence and can engage constructively and fairly in the process.

“We are determined to make this procedure as robust as possible for those raising a formal complaint, which is why we will invite our independent advisers to offer advice on any necessary adjustments to the Scottish ministerial code in the context of this update to ensure ministers engage fully with it.   

“This on-going work is informed by our engagement with trade unions and employees, including those with lived experiences of bullying and harassment.

“It is crucial in helping us build a positive and respectful culture with the highest standards of behaviour so that the Scottish Government can continue to carry out its programme delivering for the people of Scotland.” 

Under the new five-stage system, civil service involvement will be minimised and handled by a new Proprietary and Ethics Team.

The team will take initial receipt of a formal complaint and decide if it can be taken forward under the procedure.

If it can, the Government will assign an external investigator to the case who will collect facts and witness testimony, including from the complainer and the accused, and then submit their report to an independent decision maker.

The decision maker will meet with the complainer and possibly the accused and decide whether or not to uphold the complaint and recommend potential action. 

The Scottish Government will be responsible for ensuring that any recommendations are considered and implemented as appropriate. Where the complaint is about a current minister, the Scottish Government will notify the First Minister. Where a complaint is about the First Minister, the Scottish Government will notify the Deputy First Minister.

There is also an external appeal option for either the complainer or accused.

Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said: “The SNP have belatedly got their act together after delaying the publication of these new procedures for far too long.

"It was completely unacceptable that they failed to meet their own deadline for getting these new procedures in place by the end of last year.

“This new procedure is a step in the right direction but the devil will be in the detail.

"We will carefully scrutinise the updated procedure to guarantee it is fit for purpose.

“The inquiry into the former First Minister highlighted the woeful inadequacies of the current procedures for making complaints and those shameful mistakes can never be allowed to happen again.”