Handling of formal complaints

Updated independent procedure unveiled.

The Scottish Government’s updated procedure for handling formal complaints by civil servants about a Minister’s or former Minister’s behaviour has been published.

The independent procedure, which has been developed in partnership with trade unions, will now be reviewed further by the unions as well as by staff and Parliament before it comes into operation in February 2022.

Under the procedure, external, independent investigators and adjudicators will handle formal complaints of bullying, harassment and discrimination. The Scottish Government will then be responsible for acting on the final decision if the complaint is upheld.

The Deputy First Minister confirmed that Scottish ministerial code will be reviewed to ensure it takes account of the new procedure.  These revisions will be discussed and taken forward with the independent advisers on the code and confirmed in due course. 

The updated procedure is part of wider improvement work in response to the reports from Laura Dunlop QC; James Hamilton and the Scottish Parliament’s Committee on harassment complaints which covered various aspects of the Scottish Government’s complaints procedure and associated issues, as well as from lessons learned within the organisation.

Deputy First Minister John 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.” 



The Deputy First Minister wrote to the Finance and Public Administration Committee today (13 January 2022) to update members on the procedure which will come into operation in February 2022.

The updated procedure will consist of five stages:

1. Initial contact and assessment: The complainer will set out their complaint in writing to the Propriety and Ethics team. The Scottish Government will carry out initial checks, confirm whether the complaint can be taken forward under this procedure, and notify the relevant parties.

2. Investigation: Where a complaint is to be investigated, the Scottish Government will assign an external decision maker and an external investigator to the case. The external decision maker will commission the investigator to undertake an impartial collection of facts and evidence from the relevant parties including the complainer and the subject of complaint, prepare a summary of the relevant facts, and submit a report for the decision maker.

3. Decision: The decision maker will ensure that a reasonable investigation has been carried out, notify the relevant parties of the report and share copies as appropriate. The decision maker will meet with the complainer and may also meet with the subject of complaint and, following the meeting(s), decide whether to uphold the complaint or not and if appropriate make recommendations on what action, if any, should be taken. The decision maker will notify the complainer of their decision in writing and will also notify the subject of complaint and the Scottish Government.

4. Employer 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.

5. Appeal: Where either the complainer or the subject of complaint are unsatisfied with the decision, they can appeal. Appeals will be considered by an external appeal decision maker.

Following a successful open recruitment exercise under the Scottish Government’s Public Appointments process, a pool of independent investigators and adjudicators will be approved by the Permanent Secretary.

The procedure is part of the Scottish Government’s implementation plan published in June 2021 which follows on from the Government’s response to reports relating to the organisation’s handling of harassment complaints.  

A progress update on the implementation plan has also published today. All actions in the plan are either completed or underway and they form part of a wider programme of on-going improvement. Measures outlined in the plan include:

  • Setting up a Propriety and Ethics team to ensure the highest standards of propriety and integrity across the civil service in Scotland
  • Taking action to improve how we use, store and retrieve information and records, learning the lessons from our internal review of information governance.


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