High ethical standards are more important than ever in Scottish public life
Ian Gordon, Convener of the Standards Commission for Scotland, on the role it plays in promoting standards in public life
With changes to the ways local councils provide their services and the increasing use of social media as a means of interacting with the public, councillors are facing more complex issues while still having to meet with the high standards of conduct expected by the public.
The Standards Commission for Scotland exists to help, while at the same time protecting the public from those who fail to do so.
The Ethical Standards in Public Life etc. (Scotland) Act 2000 provided for a framework to encourage and, where necessary enforce, high ethical standards in public life. The Act also created a framework whereby councillors and members of devolved public bodies are required to comply with Codes of Conduct.
The Standards Commission is an independent public body comprising of five appointed members. We provide guidance and training on the application of the Codes to assist in promoting high standards of conduct. We also hold hearings (usually in public) to determine whether a councillor or member has contravened their respective code.
Where, following a hearing, the Standards Commission’s Hearing Panel find that a councillor or member has breached the relevant code it will impose a sanction. This can range from censure to suspension and disqualification.
The Standards Commission does not investigate complaints about breaches of the codes; we only have an adjudicatory role. Complaints are investigated by the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland, which is a separate and independent body. The reason for, and benefit of, the separation of functions is to ensure impartiality, fairness and objectivity in the decision-making process.
Through the issuing of press releases and the publication of decisions and information on our website, along with public access to hearings, the people of Scotland can readily observe our work and the ethical framework in action.
We also publish guidance and professional briefings to enable councillors and members to have a greater understanding of the standards of conduct expected of them and engage with officers and staff to gain an understanding of issues that cause difficulties, to help ensure advice and training is accurate and relevant.
The past year has seen a significant increase in the number and length of public hearings we have conducted in respect of potential breaches of the codes.
While an increased number of referrals may be the result of a growing awareness of the standard of conduct to be expected, we consider it also demonstrates that there is still work to be done in promoting and ensuring compliance with the codes, both in terms of their content and spirit.
We will continue with our work in providing clear and understandable guidance to individuals covered by the codes and also to councils and devolved public bodies so that the highest possible ethical standards are attained.
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