The Scottish Youth Parliament has called in police after a BuzzFeed News investigation into sexual harassment allegations raised questions over the organisation's handling of complaints.
The SYP is a charity that was established alongside the Scottish parliament in 1999 and is made up of around 150 people between the ages of 14 and 25. It aims to represent the interests of Scotland’s young people and campaigns on issues such as child poverty, mental health, and young people’s rights.
The harassment allegations, one of which involves a minor, had previously been investigated internally by the SYP management and its lawyers. BuzzFeed News asked why, given their seriousness, the allegations had not been referred to police at the time. In its response several hours later, the SYP said it had now done so.
In a statement, the organisation said it had referred the matter to Police Scotland "given the seriousness of these allegations and our belief that this is a targeted campaign against SYP".
However, following publication of this story, the Scottish Youth Parliament contacted BuzzFeed News again to say that it had contacted police after learning of a "new series of historic allegations".
A spokesperson said: "Earlier this month, SYP contacted Police Scotland on the basis of a new series of historic allegations that we were made aware of on 10th November 2017. We did not contact them in response to your inquiries on behalf of Buzzfeed."
A Police Scotland spokesperson said: “Police Scotland has been contacted by the Scottish Youth Parliament concerning possible inappropriate conduct by some of its members and former members. Inquiries are at a very early stage and it has not yet been established if anyone is reporting a crime."
They added: “The reporting and tackling of sexual harassment is a priority for Police Scotland, with all complaints received thoroughly investigated. Our Public Protection Unit has dedicated investigative teams who provide specialist support to victims and target offenders to bring them to justice.”
BuzzFeed News understands the most serious allegation involves an individual who was then a member of the SYP (MSYP). An internal investigation into the allegation cleared this person of any wrongdoing in May 2016.
The MSYP was alleged to have sent an explicit photograph to a minor within the SYP, and two former members of the SYP have told BuzzFeed News that they were sexually harassed by the individual in question. Those two alleged victims have criticised the SYP for failing to refer the case to the police until now.
One of the alleged victims told BuzzFeed News: “Although I’m glad that the SYP has now referred this matter to Police Scotland, I am afraid that it is something which should have been done over a year ago when I first made these allegations.”
When the SYP was initially asked about the internal investigation against the MSYP two weeks ago, it defended its processes.
A spokesperson said: "In March 2016, SYP received an allegation that one of our members had committed a serious offence. Upon receipt of this allegation, we took advice from child protection experts and from our lawyers. On their advice, SYP took forward a thorough investigation into the allegations, with the support of our lawyers. The investigation concluded that the serious allegations were false and that the member had no case to answer on any of the issues raised.”
Separately, BuzzFeed News has seen dozens of messages and emails – both among MSYPs and between MSYPs and the SYP management – that members say show a culture of inappropriate conduct. When a complaint of harassment was raised with the management, the complainant was admonished for damaging the SYP.
In one set of messages, a male MSYP told a female MSYP: “Your [sic] not flat,” and asked her if she’d seen the breasts of another female MSYP. In another, a male MSYP sent a female MSYP an unsolicited inappropriate image of himself, along with remarks about his sexual proclivities.
In an internal disciplinary document, it's revealed that one MSYP claimed at a meeting that there was a problem of sexism in the SYP, claiming that women did not “feel safe” there.
The SYP concluded that the allegations were unsubstantiated, and the MSYP who claimed there was a sexism problem was then threatened with disciplinary action by the CEO, Ben McKendrick, for risking "reputational damage" to the parliament. The MSYP who raised the issue was told his comment would have been inappropriate to bring up at the meeting "even if it had been accurate".
In response to further questions from BuzzFeed News on Tuesday, the SYP said that as a result of the police inquiries, it had been advised by its lawyers not to comment on the allegations, the internal process that cleared the MSYP accused of sending an explicit photo to a minor, or the separate allegations of harassment of female MSYPs and the alleged reprimand of the MSYP who raised this issue.
BuzzFeed News has also learned that a group of MSYPs complained to OSCR, the Scottish charity regulator, because they felt complaints about bullying were not being taken seriously. The regulator concluded that there were "some issues regarding the governance of the charity, in particular relating to breaches of the Code of Conduct, Disciplinary Procedures and the use of social media".
However, the OSCR went on to say: "When the charity trustees became aware of the issues ... they immediately began to take steps to address them. We therefore consider the actions of the charity trustees to be consistent with the general duties that they are subject to under the 2005 Act."
The SYP said the OSCR's findings were "a matter of public record".
Before the allegations were referred to police, a spokesperson for the SYP said: "SYP wishes to make it clear that all allegations of harassment or inappropriate behaviour of any kind are taken very seriously, investigated thoroughly, and the appropriate action taken in line with our policies.
"We have robust child protection and disciplinary processes in place to ensure that the wellbeing of all the young people with whom we work is protected. Where deemed appropriate, and in line with these policies, relevant information would be passed on to external authorities such as the police or social services for further investigation."
This article was updated following publication to add a new statement from the SYP.
Following publication of this story, councillor Jordan Linden issued a statement saying he had stepped aside from the Scottish National Party while the police make enquiries and that any allegations against him are false.
In a statement, he said: "I have been cleared of any wrong-doing already; these are false allegations. I hope the police will act against those who are spreading lies against me and others. I have stepped aside from the SNP until this matter is resolved."
Jamie Ross is a Scotland reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Edinburgh.
Contact Jamie Ross at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.