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Council / Independent investigation criticises watchdog’s handling of councillor complaint

The investigation into the Ethical Standards Commissioner was carried out following concerns from SIC convener Malcolm Bell

A NATIONAL ethical standards watchdog has been accused of “wholly unacceptable practices” after an independent investigation criticised how a referral against a Shetland councillor was handled.

Shetland Islands Council convener Malcolm Bell, whose complaint against the Ethical Standards Commissioner sparked the investigation, said the findings of the independent report was a “damning indictment”.

The report – undertaken by CGPM Consulting LLP – looked at how the Ethical Standards Commissioner, who at the time was Caroline Anderson before she went on leave, dealt with a referral about the conduct of Shetland Central councillor Ian Scott.

At the time, the commissioner – who investigates complaints against MSPs and councillors – decided against taking the complaints forward.

But those investigating Anderson’s work believe that her investigation into Scott’s conduct was “not impartial”, “did not consider a complete evidence pool” and was “conducted in such a way so as to achieve a particular outcome”.

Scott was referred for claiming information he had received from a council official on one occasion which turned out to be a “lie”, as well as his conduct in the council chamber during the same incident, which took place in September last year.

He was reported to the Edinburgh-based watchdog by council convener Malcolm Bell and leader Steven Coutts.

But the Ethical Standards Commissioner’s handling of the case was then placed under investigation following a complaint by Bell.

In correspondence with the commissioner Bell said it was “quite remarkable” that she reached a position and managed to write a detailed letter dismissing his complaint against Scott without conducting a formal investigation.

Malcolm Bell. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

A report on the independent investigation has now been published and it upholds a number of Bell’s concerns – with it ruling that the commissioner was “in breach of the statutory duty to investigate a valid complaint”.

The report also said that “in our view, opportunities were sought and taken to establish a basis for which a proper investigation conducted reasonably could be avoided”.

The report also highlighted: “Whilst we are very critical of the process followed and the attitude adopted, they may have had no effect on the ultimate outcome.

“However, that does not mitigate either process followed, nor attitude adopted.”

In response, Bell said he had accepted an apology from the acting Ethical Standards Commissioner and had no intention to ask for the initial complaint against Scott to be re-examined.

But he added: “These findings and others contained in the report, are a damming indictment of the way the original complaint against the councillor and also my subsequent complaints against the commissioner themselves were handled by the commissioner.

“I am grateful to them for taking steps to rectify the completely untenable position adopted by the commissioner.”

When asked if he would call for Anderson’s resignation, Bell said he was not his place to do so as the role is appointed by the Scottish Parliament.

“But it’s very difficult to see how her position can be tenable given the content of the report,” he said.

Bell also noted the importance of councillors sticking to the code of conduct.

“The public and indeed council officials should expect no less of elected representatives,” he said.

“The commissioner plays a pivotal role in the process of upholding the councillors code of conduct.

“For a council like ours, made up substantially of independent members, this regulator provides the only recourse when breaches of the code occasionally occur.

“To that end, public confidence in the office of the commissioner, their impartiality and demonstration, by them themselves, of the highest standards is vital and I trust that this can now be restored.”

The Ethical Standards Commissioner said this week that it had nothing to add to what was set out in the report.

But a representative pointed to a revised strategic plan and new biennial business plan in respect of the recommendations made.

The Ethical Standards Commissioner oversees the conduct of those holding public office, while it is also tasked to encourage transparency in public life in Scotland.

It investigates complaints about the behaviour of MSPs, local authority councillors and board members of public bodies.

Once the investigation is concluded it will then submit a report to the Standards Commission, which can hold hearings to determine any sanctions.

Caroline Anderson, who oversaw the response to Scott’s referral, has been on an extended period of leave since early March. Ian Bruce was appointed acting commissioner in April.

Last year, following an investigation by the Ethical Standards Commissioner, North Isles councillor Ryan Thomson was censured by the Standards Commission for failing to update his register of interests.