NICOLA Sturgeon has backed the leader of the SNP’s Westminster group despite saying he presided over an “utterly unacceptable” meeting of the party’s MPs.

The First Minister said she still had confidence in Ian Blackford after questions about sexual misconduct and the protection of complainers in the SNP dominated FMQs. 

Ms Sturgeon was quizzed about her party’s handling of the Patrick Grady scandal.

A Commons watchdog last week upheld a complaint against the Glasgow North MP, finding he "made an unwanted sexual advance" to a male SNP staffer in a pub in 2016 while "under the influence of alcohol".

He was suspended for two days by the Commons and the SNP.

A leaked recording of the SNP’s Westminster group then revealed Mr Blackford, despite promising “zero tolerance” of harassment, had urged his MPs to give Mr Grady their “absolute full support”, with some of them responding “hear hear” when he did so.

On Tuesday,  after four days of silence, Mr Blackford said he regretted what happened to the staffer and that he felt let down, but did not say sorry for his own comments.

The staffer today said that was a “cop out”.

He told BBC Radio Scotland: "Ian Blackford has never contacted me privately to give me a private apology. I was also given zero notice that this so-called apology was going to be published or given to broadcasters to use.

"I found out like everybody else, so to me it's a publicity stunt and he has done it to protect his position and protect his reputation.

"It seems like the SNP under Ian Blackford at Westminster hasn't learnt a thing - they are still trying to close ranks and discredit the victim".

At FMQs, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross raised the issue and the victim’s concerns.

In her first comment on the recording, Ms Sturgeon said it “reveals part of what was wrong on that case”.

She said: “What I have heard suggests that more concern was shown for the perpetrator of this behaviour than the victim of it.

“I think that is utterly unacceptable and that is something I will be very clear about.”

She went on: “All parties have faced this - there are two (Westminster) by-elections happening today because of behaviour on the part of Conservative MPs.

“All parties have faced this, all parties have been criticised, including in these cases for their handling of these matters, and I think it is important for all of us – and I will simply speak for myself – that somebody in my position should not sit in a glass house throwing stones about these things.

“We should sort these things out when they arise in our own parties, that’s what I intend to do for the SNP and I think it’s what all leaders should do when it arises in their parties as well.”

Mr Ross, the MP for Moray as well as a Highlands MSP, said the by-elections were caused by the resignations of the MPs concerned. 

Imran Ahmed Khan quit after being convicted of sexual assaulting a teenage boy, and Neil Parish resigned after he watched pornography in the House of Commons.

Mr Ross said: “I know the First Minister wants to make this about other parties and other parts of the country, but the fact that we have two by-elections today is because Conservative MPs have been suspended and resigned from Parliament.

“Patrick Grady has been suspended for 48 hours.”

Mr Sturgeon replied: “I think people listening will hear me take these issues extremely seriously, I don’t think they will have heard me try to make it all about other parties, but what they will have heard me say is something all of us must reflect on.

“If I was standing here saying ‘the SNP has got no issues here, it’s all about the Conservatives or Labour’, I would be showing that I do not understand the systemic nature of these issues.”

She added that if Mr Ross claimed such issues were a problem “uniquely for the SNP”, then “he doesn’t understand the systemic society-wide nature of these issues”.

Speaking to the media at Holyrood after FMQs, Ms Sturgeon was asked if she still had confidence in Mr Blackford given her criticism of the “utterly unacceptable” comments.

She said: “Yes, I do. For me what is important is that we reflect on the experiences of the victim in this case. If there are changes we need to make as a result of that then we make those changes.”

Pressed on Mr Blackford’s behaviour beng “utterly unacceptable”, Ms Sturgeon shifted emphasis, saying: “I said the recording, the recording.. made a suggestion that the interests of the perpetrator of unwanted sexual behaviour were being given priority over the experiewnces of the victim. That is not the case. That should never be the case. And I recognise that there is a really important obligation to demonstrate that that is not the case.”

Asked again how she could have confidence in Mr Blackford as Westminster leader, she said: “That recording gave that suggestion, and my job as SNP leader is to make sure that when these issues arise for the SNP, or as First Minister for the Scottish Government, we don’t simply sweep them under the carpet, we don’t defend things that shouldn’t be defended, but that we are open and have a determination to put things right.”