SCOTLAND’S ethics watchdog has been approached by the Committee for Standards in Public Life (CSPL) for assistance as it looks to improve and regulate ethical standards in Local Government in England.
The Standards Commission for Scotland (SCS) reviewed the strengths and weaknesses of Scotland’s ethical standards framework to provide a consultation response to the CSPL.
Professor Kevin Dunion, Convener of the SCS, said: “Submitting evidence to England’s CSPL has given us an excellent opportunity to reflect on our own system.
“This is particularly important at a time when the behaviour of those in public life is under increased scrutiny as a result of the publicity surrounding bullying and harassment claims and also about intimidatory behaviour on social media.
“We have highlighted policies and procedures that are strong and effective, while also outlining areas that could be improved.”
Among the perceived strengths in Scotland is the independence of the SCS from Government.
Members of the SCS are appointed by Parliament, whereas in England members of the CSPL are appointed by the Prime Minister.
In England, whilst the CSPL promotes ethical standards and conducts general enquiries, unlike Scotland, it cannot investigate or adjudicate individual allegations of misconduct.
In Scotland, individual are complaints investigated by the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland.
If he finds that a breach may have occurred, the SCS can hold a Hearing and will impose a sanction on the Councillor or member of the public body found to be in breach of the ethical code.
However, there are areas of Scotland’s ethical framework which could be improved. The fact that a sanction must be applied at a Hearing, even if it is found that a breach of a Code of Conduct was unintentional or inadvertent, may be disproportionate to the offence.
Also the time taken between a complaint being made, an investigation being carried out and it finally being considered at a Hearing of the SCS can be prolonged, especially if witnesses are reluctant or slow to provide evidence.
Professor Dunion said: “Overall, while we recognise that some areas are in need of improvement, we are satisfied with how the Scottish system functions, and hope our experience will benefit the review being conducted in England.”
The SCS’s remit is to encourage high standards of behaviour by councillors and those appointed to boards of devolved public bodies through the promotion and enforcement of Codes of Conduct.
The SCS holds Hearings to determine whether councillors or board members have breached their respective Codes. The SCS’s Hearings are normally held in public, in the locality of where the councillor or member is based, which enables the public to have confidence that action is taken when individuals fail to meet the standards expected of them. It also increases awareness of the complaints process.
The fact that the Codes of Conduct outline the standards of behaviour demanded of those in public life, means that those elected, appointed and nominated to public office have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. It also gives the public confidence that certain standards of conduct are expected of those elected or appointed to represent their interests.
In England, it is recognised that robust standards arrangements may be needed to safeguard local democracy, maintain high standards of conduct, and to protect ethical practice in local government.
This recognition has prompted the CSPL to undertake a review on structures, processes and practices in place on all matters in Local Government, from town and parish councils, to the Greater London Authority and the Mayor of London and to look to the SCS for comparative purposes.
The SCS promotes and enforces codes of conduct for councillors across Scotland, as well as individuals appointed to a wide range of national and regional public bodies, and many other organisations, including NHS Boards and further education colleges.
The SCS promotes awareness and understanding of the Codes of Conduct, which are based around nine key principles, including duty, selflessness, and accountability.
The SCS provides training guidance and other support materials to councillors and board members of on devolved public bodies who are covered by the various codes of conduct.
Further information on the work of the SCS can be found at http://www.standardscommissionscotland.org.uk/
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