Bullying and harassment in public bodies could be going unreported, Standards Commission for Scotland warns

Written by Jenni Davidson on 15 February 2019 in News

A survey found that 16 per cent of public board members had experienced bullying, harassment or disrespectful language

Boardroom - Image credit: Pxhere

Bullying and harassment by members of public boards could be going unreported, the Standards Commission for Scotland has warned.

A survey sent to all 127 of Scotland’s devolved public bodies – which includes national and regional bodies, further education colleges and regional transport partnerships – found that 16 per cent of board members had experienced some form of ‘disrespectful conduct’ such as bullying, harassment or disrespectful language.

The percentage was even higher in health and social care, where nearly a quarter of board members on health boards and health and social care integration joint boards (IJBs), said they had experienced such behaviour.

However, 43 per cent of respondents said they would be “very” or “somewhat” reluctant to make a complaint about a fellow board member, with women and members of IJBs more reluctant to make complaints.

Reasons given for not complaining included a fear of repercussions, difficulty in challenging the chair, preferring a less-formal means of complaint and concern that nothing would be done.

The Standards Commission, which enforces codes of conduct for councillors and members of public bodies in Scotland, carried out the survey to find out why there were far fewer complaints about public bodies than councillors.

It has dealt with 15 cases involving councillors to every one relating to a member of a public board, despite there being more board members than councillors.

None of the 11 public hearings held by the Standards Commission during the past year involved a member of a public body.

Standards Commission convener Kevin Dunion said: “We would expect that devolved public bodies, which operate in a less adversarial political context than local authorities, would generate far fewer complaints regarding conduct of members.

“Nevertheless, it is important to check whether the lack of complaints is due to exemplary conduct or whether members feel inhibited about complaining where possible breaches occur.

“It is good news that the majority say they are not aware of failings which could give rise to a complaint.

“However, it is a matter of concern that a minority of members report having experienced or witnessed conduct that could be described as bullying, harassment or being dismissive.

“In such instances they should feel able to make a complaint if the matter is not addressed at source.

“But the survey shows that overall almost half of the respondents would be reluctant to submit a formal complaint.

“Their reasons range from impact upon relationships, concern that nothing would be done or the difficulty of challenging the chair.

“In any case, about a quarter of members are not clear about how to make a complaint about a breach of the code.”

He added: “I am particularly concerned about the responses coming from health boards and IJBs, which show the highest incidence of disrespectful behaviour, the lowest level of collective responsibility and the least satisfaction with training on the code of conduct amongst devolved public bodies.

“I will be drawing the results to the attention of ministers and board chairs whilst, as a commission, we will prepare specific training events and guidance to ensure members are better equipped to challenge and, if necessary, complain about poor conduct.”

The Standards Commission will share its findings with the Scottish Government to help inform induction and training for board members and chairs of devolved public bodies, as well as discussions about whether bullying and harassment should be added to the code of conduct for public boards, as they have been to the councillors’ code of conduct.

Both local authority and public body codes of conduct are likely be reviewed by the Standards Commission and Scottish Government later this year to make sure they are fit for purpose.

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