Record high Hearings by Scotland’s ethics watchdog

by Catriona Conway-Mortimer

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

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THE WATCHDOG that encourages ethical behaviour by those holding public office in Scotland has held a record number of Hearings this year.

The Standards Commission for Scotland (SCS) held 12 Hearings involving 13 councillors in 2017/18.

11 of these Hearings resulted in sanctions being applied, including two cases that saw local government councillors suspended from their roles.

By comparison, the SCS held 11 Hearings in 2016/17 and just five in 2015/16.

The SCS is a public body, independent of government, which promotes high standards of behaviour by councillors and those appointed to boards of devolved public bodies by encouraging adherence to Codes of Conduct.

The SCS works to build public confidence in those in public life by holding public Hearings into alleged breaches of the Codes on a wide range of issues, ranging from failures to register and declare interests to the improper use of public resources.

In the past year, the SCS has made decisions on a number of cases, from a councillor posting a discriminatory comment about a member of the public on Facebook, to a councillor who breached strict guidelines preventing the use of council equipment for electioneering.
Other cases have involved a councillor repeatedly shouting over the Provost and insulting his colleagues in a council meeting, and a councillor seeking preferential treatment and lobbying other elected members, in relation to an application for planning permission submitted by his own company for a wind turbine.

Professor Kevin Dunion OBE, Convener of the SCS, said: “We exist to help safeguard integrity in Scottish public life and to promote good ethical conduct.

“We consider the public has a right to expect high standards of behaviour from its elected representatives and those appointed to public bodies and to trust that they will act, and make decisions, in the public interest.

“The SCS would like to remind the public that they can make a complaint if they consider this has not been the case.

“Our Hearings have included cases where individuals in public life have made offensive and insulting remarks, including those of a sexual or sectarian nature. We have also identified conduct which is wholly inappropriate in a professional context, where a position of authority is used to pursue a personal relationship.

“However, the steady increase in the number of annual hearings does not mean that the behaviour of those in public life is necessarily getting worse.

“It could be that standards are actually improving, but awareness of the ethical standards framework, and the fact that individuals can and will be held to account if they do not treat others with dignity and respect, is increasing.”

The 12 Hearings in 2017/18 involved 13 councillors, and resulted in 11 findings of breach being found and sanctions being applied. Allegations considered at Hearings concerned:

  • Failures to properly register and / or declare interests
  • Improper use of council facilities or seeking preferential treatment
  • Failures to act with courtesy and respect (in relation to members of the public, colleagues and officers)
  • Breaches of confidentiality

Complaints about councillors and members of devolved public bodies are made to, and investigated by, the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland (CESPLS). If, after investigation, the CESPLS considers that a breach of the Code of Conduct has occurred, he forwards a report to the SCS which will then normally hold a public Hearing.

In 2017/18 the CESPLS received 146 complaints and chose to fully investigate 55 before referring 10 reports to the SCS.  The SCS held public Hearings in respect of eight of these reports, decided to take no action for one of these cases, and has one further Hearing scheduled for 2018/19.

The other three Hearings that the SCS held in 2017/18 had been referred to them by the CESPLS the previous year.

At a Hearing, the CESPLS outlines the case against the respondent. Respondents can either represent themselves, or be represented, and witnesses can be called to give evidence.

The Hearing Panel, made up of three members of the SCS, then considers and weighs up all evidence carefully to determine whether, on balance of probabilities, there has been a breach of a Code of Conduct.

If it finds that a breach of a Code of Conduct has occurred, it will impose a sanction – either censure, suspension or disqualification.

Professor Dunion added: “It is of paramount importance that we deal with allegations fairly and impartially, and on a case-by-case basis to ensure that all those involved and the public have confidence in the Hearing process.

“Our role is to ensure that councillors and members of devolved public bodies are held to account by a system which is trustworthy and robust.”

In the past three years the SCS has held 28 Hearings in 18 of Scotland’s 32 council areas.

Eight of the 28 cases in the past three years have led to councillors or members of devolved public bodies being suspended, while 19 have been censured.

In a number of these cases, however, the Respondent was no longer a councillor or member at the time of the Hearing.  The Hearing Panel made it clear that a suspension would have been imposed instead of a censure had that option been available.

As well as covering councillors in all 32 Scottish Local Authorities, the SCS also oversees NHS boards and the boards of organisations including Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Scottish Qualification Authority, Sport Scotland and Scottish Water, NHS 24, Sport Scotland, Creative Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

Further details are available at the SCS website,

http://www.standardscommissionscotland.org.uk/

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Catriona Conway-Mortimer, account executive with Holyrood PR in Edinburgh, Scotland

Catriona Conway-Mortimer

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