Saturday, 10 September 2011

An unethical conflict of interest in upholding ethical standards in Scottish public life

It might have been expected that a body like the grandly named Commission for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland would go out of its way to avoid any suggestion of conflicts of interest.

However, the quango - charged as it is with "making a visible, valued and lasting contribution to ethical standards in public life, thereby strengthening public trust and confidence in elected and appointed office-holders" - has as its Public Standards Commissioner for Scotland one D Stuart Allan (sic), who was Head of Law & Administration at Fife Council. Thus senior bureaucrat turned senior quangocrat. Or perhaps poacher turned gamekeeper. Or the other way round. Or gamekeeper turned gamekeeper. Yes, that's the one. Heaven forfend that it should be the other alternative!

Anyway, the Commissioner considers complaints regarding the actions of councillors (and others in public life) insofar as they may have breached the relevant Code of Conduct which governs their behaviour.

The code precludes councillors from raising in public "matters relating to the conduct or capability of employees", inter alia. A recent case concerned complaints by two heads of department at Angus Council, who alleged that a councillor had circulated an email asking “Since when has (sic) Council reports been based on friends of friends?”, and stating that “Past evidence proves beyond doubt that the estimates produced by our Economic Development department ever since they were formed, has been pie-in-the-sky, without foundation and clearly plucked out of the air to attempt to substantiate a report,” not to mention “I also want to know who authorised Economic Development to go seeking to fund sponsorship in this way without councillor permission – just who is responsible for this council, is this department out of control?”.

Oh dear. But ignoring the substance of the case, is a former council head of department really the best person to be adjudicating on complaints from currently serving council heads of department? Surely an obvious conflict of interest?

But it was surprising to read in the press that the Standards Commissioner had in fact exonerated the councillor regarding the alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct.

Hurrah - there is a functioning democracy in Scotland after all! However, on closer inspection things are not so rosy, since the decision was based on the narrow ground that the councillor hadn't actually named any official in his email. Unfortunately the Commissioner goes on:
However, in reaching this conclusion, I did not find that the respondent had acted appropriately in this matter. Whether or not his concerns had been justified, they should have been raised with the Chief Executive of the Council and not in the press. The respondent had shown a lack of responsibility by saying he had raised the issue at his Group meeting and had expected his Leader to take the matter up with the Chief Executive. It was at the very least surprising that a councillor with 12 years of experience had not realised this, and it was a matter of concern that he apparently still did not accept that his actions had been inappropriate. It was quite clear that the respondent’s conduct, rather than improving an existing state of affairs, had been a great deal more likely adversely to affect existing relationships within the Council and to diminish the Council’s reputation and of course his own.
The general tenor of which seems to be that every concern regarding public employees should effectively be swept under the carpet. So much for openness and accountability.

Of course, this is a difficult area, because ultimately the theory is that elected councillors make the decisions and to that extent municipal employees shouldn't be seen to be held responsible for these things in public. But the whole thing just seems too cosy considering the power that these officials wield, especially when seen in the context of the often lamentable scrutiny afforded by councillors, as many a legal case and ombudsman's decision testifies.

And, for example, if an official report is presented to a council meeting does all this mean that criticism of the report by councillors is considered off-limits? Thus it's all presumably stitched up beforehand and hence doesn't seem indicative of open and democratic decision-making.

And these kind of issues came to the fore recently in a more prominent environment when Edinburgh councillors Jenny Dawe and Steve Cardownie were accused of implying that officials had lied with regard to evidence cited in relation to the inquiry into the Highland Gathering fiasco.

Moreover, these two individuals - leader and deputy leader of the council respectively - have been up to their necks in controversy regarding the trams shambles, which of course is also steeped in questionable conduct from the paid bureaucrats.

Some of which may be highlighted in years to come, but does anyone really expect the unvarnished truth to come out or those responsible for the various shortcomings to be held properly accountable? Cover ups, blame shifting and hefty pay-offs seem more likely than anything more open, honest and accountable.

But, in the meantime, is a former council bigwig really the only person in Scotland deemed capable of adjudicating on complaints from serving council bigwigs? Or is this yet another example of Scotland's municipal old boy (and girl!) network emanating from local authorities and bodies like SOLACE and SOLAR, in this case slightly ludicrously claiming to uphold ethical standards in public life?


Barbarian of the North said...

Mmm, sounds a bit like sending in Jim Sheridan to police the Westminster expenses!

Anyone who has to audit or oversee a process in this role absolutely must be fully independent.

Unfortuantely, in this country that is unlikely to happen. The "old boy" (and girl) network is still too strong.

Stuart Winton said...

Indeed, Barbarian.

Never mind though, Alex & Co will sort it a' oot!