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Council / Critical report on ethical watchdog no surprise, Bell says

Malcolm Bell. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

COUNCIL convener Malcolm Bell says he is not surprised that Scotland’s ethical standards watchdog, which he submitted a formal complaint about earlier this year, has been slated in a report by the country’s auditor general.

The Audit Scotland report in question revolves around the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland, which investigates complaints about the behaviour of MSPs and councillors.

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Serious failings in the way the Ethical Standards Commissioner (ESC) has been conducting her job in upholding high standards in public life in Scotland were highlighted in the report.

Earlier this year an investigation into the commissioner was held following a complaint from Bell over the handling of a referral of Shetland Central councillor Ian Scott.

The independent report said commissioner Caroline Anderson’s 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”.

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Responding to the Audit Scotland report after it was published this morning (Monday), Bell said: “The report finds ‘serious failings’ in the way the Commissioner’s Office has operated.

“These findings do not surprise me. They echo those contained in an independent report, published on 21 October 2021, which was commissioned following serious concerns I raised with the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body (SPCB) relating to the commissioner’s handling of a complaint into a councillor’s conduct in 2020.”

The Commissioner’s Office has since accepted 22 recommendations made by the appointed auditor and has made progress in addressing issues raised.

“There have clearly been very serious and concerning shortcomings in the operation of the Ethical Standards Commissioner’s office and I am pleased to see they have accepted all the recommendations made by the auditor,” Bell added.

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“I am also pleased to note the Auditor General has intimated he will continue to monitor the Ethical Standards Commissioner’s office in order to ensure the required improvement actions are taken.

“The required improvements are essential if members of the public are to regain confidence in the way the Ethical Standards Commissioner investigates complaints into the conduct of councillors and others privileged to hold public office.”

In a report to the Scottish Parliament on Monday auditor general for Scotland Stephen Boyle did not mince his words when he described the quality of the body tasked to ensure high standards as “disturbing”. He also said it was “worrying to see so many failings”.

According to minutes from the Standards Commission, the ESC only accepted three out of 44 complaints – or 6.8 per cent – made against public office bearers, such as councillors and MSPs, between 12 November 2020 and 1 March 2021.

The minutes spell out that a refusal rate of 93.2 per cent was not acceptable, and a marked difference to a previous office bearer who accepted 61 per cent of cases submitted to him.

The minutes read: “Members considered the refusal to investigate a vast majority of cases was unacceptable as it gave the impression, whether correct or otherwise, that a complainer was wasting their time in making a complaint and that only the most self-evident alleged breaches of the codes would even be considered.”

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In his submission to parliament, the auditor general summarised the failing of the office as follows:

•           an absence of openness and transparency

•           a breakdown in key relationships with stakeholders and within its own office

•           no effective scrutiny or challenge which might have flagged up issues earlier

Auditor general for Scotland Stephen Boyle said: “It is disturbing to see so many failings in an organisation, not least because it deals directly with concerns raised by members of the public.”

He continued: “The office of the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland plays a vital role investigating complaints from members of the public about MSPs, councillors and members of public boards.

“But it has not been doing its job as it should. Key relationships with other public bodies have broken down.

“It is neither open nor transparent, and it lacks effective scrutiny and challenge – which might have flagged up these issues sooner.

“It is worrying to see so many failings in a single public body. Whilst efforts are under way to address these issues, more needs to be done.

“The key risk now is that the public loses trust in the Commissioner’s office to properly investigate complaints about individuals occupying positions of public life in Scotland.”

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

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.

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