Scotland politics

Top civil servant confirms purdah 'lapse'

St Andrews House Image copyright Scottish Government
Image caption A freedom of information request revealed correspondence between senior officials at St Andrews House

A top Scottish government civil servant has confirmed there was a "lapse in internal handling" over an investment announcement during the local council election campaign in May.

But Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans repeated her ruling that a news release about £8m of regeneration funding for Glasgow did not breach "purdah" rules.

Her comments came after internal emails from civil servants were released.

They talked about an "error of judgement" and "the wrong call".

Purdah is the pre-election period where civil servants are prevented from making announcements about any new or controversial government initiatives, which could be seen to be advantageous to any candidates or parties in the forthcoming election.

Opposition parties called for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to launch a fresh probe into the affair.

The row was sparked when the government issued the press release over Glasgow regeneration funding, two days before the local authority elections on 4 May.

Guidance for civil servants issued in January stated that "particular care" should be taken in the weeks preceding elections, reminding staff that "the activities of the Scottish government could have a bearing on the local election campaigns".

Scottish Conservative MSP Ross Thomson raised a point of order about the matter at Holyrood and wrote to Ms Evans, the most senior civil servant in the Scottish government.

Image caption Ross Thomson raised a point of order at Holyrood and wrote to the government's permanent secretary

Ms Evans subsequently wrote back to Mr Thomson saying she had "carefully considered" his letter, but had concluded that "there is no evidence whatsoever that the civil service allowed party political considerations to influence the timing of this announcement".

She said the release was "a matter of routine government business and was in no way designed to influence the election campaign".

She added: "I have concluded that the announcement in itself could not reasonably be said to have the potential to have a material impact on the election. I do not therefore believe that there has been a breach of the pre-election guidance.

"I can assure you that we take very seriously indeed the need to adhere to the highest standards of civil service propriety. Our record of observing purdah periods has been and remains unblemished."

'Error of judgement'

However, government email correspondence about the row released under freedom of information rules shows civil servants privately admitted problems with the process.

The messages show that election rules had been discussed early in the process by officials at government headquarters St Andrew's House, but that the press release was ultimately signed off.

Before the response to Mr Thomson was sent, Lesley Fraser, the government's director for housing and social justice, wrote: "I think this has been a genuine error of judgement about regular announcements that affect communities across Scotland - but clearly the wrong call on this occasion."

She added that officials were happy to work to "learn lessons".

Image caption Correspondence between government officials was released under freedom of information rules

A subsequent message from the first minister's official spokesperson also noted: "I thought it was implicit that it was a wrong call given where we are."

In a later email asking her to clarify what she meant by "error of judgement", Ms Fraser wrote: "In the first instance, and a primary concern, is that colleagues failed to follow the guidance and to seek advice from senior management/cabinet secretariat etc on cases like this.

"If I had been asked, I would have been concerned that this could have been perceived as falling within the scope of the restrictions, and I would have instructed colleagues to seek further advice."

Ms Evans has now sent a second letter to Mr Thomson stating that the "error of judgement" referred to was in not referring the matter up to senior staff for consideration.

She said: "Although it is regrettable that this lapse in our internal handling occurred, this does not in itself change my judgement that the announcement was legitimate government business."

'Murky affair'

Mr Thomson urged First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to "launch a full investigation into this entire murky affair".

He said: "After we pressed them, Nicola Sturgeon's top official tried to claim in public that the government had done nothing wrong. Now we know the truth - officials admitted they made 'the wrong call', and then the SNP government tried to cover it up.

"This whole affair stinks - and it has shone a light on the SNP's culture of secrecy, denial and evasion."

Scottish Labour's James Kelly added: "This is a damning revelation, and demands an urgent response from Nicola Sturgeon. She cannot bury her head in the sand any longer.

"There must be a full and frank investigation into how this announcement came about. The public has a right to know who knew what and when."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish government said: "As the permanent secretary has already made clear, following an inquiry into the funding announcement, there is no evidence to suggest any breach of pre-election guidance.

"Our election guidance states that where there is any doubt about the application of the guidance, the matter should be referred to senior staff for consideration. No such upward referral took place on this occasion, which was an error of judgement. This was a lapse in the internal handling but not a breach of the rules."

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