The rural economy secretary, Fergus Ewing, is under formal investigation for alleged bullying following a complaint from the recently retired director of Marine Scotland, Graham Black.
The Ferret can reveal that the Scottish Government has escalated a probe into allegations by Black and two other senior civil servants, who say that they have been verbally harangued by Ewing.
What was previously described as an “informal” process to handle the complaints against Ewing has now become a formal one.
The allegations have been denied by Ewing. “I completely reject all the claims against me,” he said in February.
Black, who has not been named as a complainant before, was appointed director of Marine Scotland in March 2017 and retired in August 2020. He previously worked for HM Revenue and Customs, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Monetary Fund.
Marine Scotland is the government agency responsible for fishing, fish farming and marine renewables. It is overseen by Ewing, a 63-year-old SNP veteran appointed to the cabinet by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in 2016.
The Ferret understands that this is not the first time that Black has accused Ewing of bullying. Previous concerns are said to have been dealt with informally.
Black’s most recent allegation – made late in 2019 – was accompanied by similar concerns raised by two other senior officials, who have not been named. The government initially tried to resolve the matter using what it described as an “informal” process.
But that has proved unsuccessful, and a formal process examining the three complaints is now under way. According to the government, the process is “at an early stage”.
Sky News reported in February 2020 that unnamed Marine Scotland officials had made complaints against Ewing. Senior Scottish Government managers were said to have spent several months trying to deal with the complaints informally.
Questioned by reporters at Holyrood, Ewing said: “I completely reject all the claims against me.
“A process is under way, 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 Scottish Government also said in February that a process was under way, adding that it was “at an early, informal stage.”
But when The Ferret asked the government about the complaint from Black on 23 September, it made the same statement but omitted the word “informal”.
When questioned further on 29 September the Scottish Government confirmed that “the matter is at a formal stage”. A spokesperson added: “We do not comment on individual staffing matters.”
The campaign group, Open Seas, accused Ewing of pushing marine policy in the wrong direction. “We have heard the rumours of bullying and hope that any complaints are thoroughly investigated,” said the group’s Nick Underdown.
“Fergus Ewing is a minister with significant influence in the direction of Marine Scotland, a directorate of the Scottish Government that is responsible for managing public assets such as our fisheries and seabed.”
He added: “We have seen Marine Scotland presiding over actions that bow to environmentally damaging industries at the apparent behest of the minister, rather than championing more progressive and sustainable rural businesses and policies.
“It is essential that Scottish Government is able to deliver for Scotland and its people as a whole and not be side-tracked by a short-termism of a single minister.”
The Ferret reported in September 2018 that Ewing had been the subject of a previous bullying allegation which was informally resolved. He subsequently admitted that he could be “forthright” in expressing his views, and said he had “apologised personally to the individual concerned.”
Ewing added at the time: “Going forward, I will continue to ensure I maintain the high standards that are rightly expected of a government minister.”
In June 2020 we reported that the civil service trade union, PCS, had criticised Ewing as “very un-ministerial” after he appeared to blame civil servants for failing to minute 25 meetings with the fish farming industry.
The First Division Association, which represents senior civil servants, declined to comment on an ongoing investigation.
Photo thanks to Scottish Government.