Watchdog reminds public about the importance of complaining

Kevin Dunion convener of the Standards Commission for Scotland
Kevin Dunion convener of the Standards Commission for Scotland

The body which keeps local councillors and NHS board members in line wants people to know their complaints will be listened to and action taken.

Recent high profile cases of misconduct from public figures has led the Standards Commission for Scotland (SCS) to issue a reminder to people about the current complaints process and a reassurance that a rigorous structure is in place to investigate allegations – with a range of sanctions available to punish those guilty of wrongdoing.

The SCS is an independent body which promotes and enforces codes of conduct for councillors, as well as individuals appointed to national and sectoral public bodies, including NHS Boards and further education colleges.

SCS convener Kevin Dunion, Convener of the SCS, said: “The conduct of public figures is front of mind at the moment, mainly because of President Trump, but also because of allegations of impropriety at Westminster.

“We should expect the most powerful man in the world and the elected members of the world’s oldest parliament to be role models for good behaviour. But as the #MeToo movement has shown it is not only those in prominent roles who are perpetrators, or victims, of abuse.”

According to the SCS there have been allegations in the Scottish media of bullying, harassing or disrespectful behaviour and language.

Professor Dunion said: “We require the highest levels of ethical behaviour from those who represent us at a town hall or public board level in Scotland – and that is where we come in.

“The Standards Commission has imposed sanctions where councillors have breached the statutory Code of Conduct. This includes occasions when they 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. The immediate message we want to get across is that the current ethical standards framework in Scotland does provide a means to expose and punish those in public life who are disrespectful, in the widest sense of that term.”

The Standards Commission says it is keen to understand why those who are subject to bullying or harassment do not make a complaint. One possible reason is a lack of knowledge of the ethical standards enforcement process.

Professor Dunion said: “We’re here to ensure those who breach rules concerning ethics, probity or transparency will be held to account. Perhaps there is a lack of awareness that even things like gratuitous, offensive comments posted on a Facebook page can constitute a breach of these broad principles and could result in a sanction being imposed by Standards Commission.”

The SCS stress councillors and members of public bodies have a duty to maintain and strengthen the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of their council or public body and must respect fellow members and employees – treating them with courtesy at all times.

They must also respect members of the public when performing their duties while acting in their capacity as a councillor or board member of a public body.

“The vast majority of councillors and other public office holders are principled, diligent and well-intentioned,” said Professor Dunion. “They also benefit from an increase in public confidence when we root out examples of behaviour that is unacceptable.”

Complaints about councillors and members of devolved public bodies are handled and investigated by the office of The Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland (CESPLS).

If, following investigation, the CESPLS considers a breach has occurred, he will forward a report to the Standards Commission.

The SCS will then hold a public hearing where the CESPLS will outline the case against the individual, whose lawyers or other representatives will also have the opportunity to respond.

A Hearing Panel, comprising of three members of the commission, then adjudicates and if a breach is found to have happened, it will also decide on the sanction, which could see the councillor or board member censured, suspended or even disqualified.