Section 1 of the Ethical Standards in Public Life etc. (Scotland) Act 2000 requires the Scottish Ministers to issue a Code of Conduct for Councillors (the Code).
The Code sets out the standards that all councillors must comply with when carrying out their council duties. The Code is supported by supplementary, independent guidance, published by the Standards Commission for Scotland (‘the Standards Commission’), which provides more detail on what the Code means for councillors in practice. All local authority councillors in Scotland are obliged to comply with the Code and with any guidance on the Code issued by the Standards Commission.
The current version of the Code was originally issued in 2010 following a limited review of the Code that the Scottish Government carried out in 2009. A further amendment was published in 2018 which addressed the specific issue of councillors’ membership on regional transport partnerships. The current version of the Code can be found here.
The 2000 Act states that Ministers shall issue a councillors’ code only after it has been laid before and approved by a resolution of the Scottish Parliament. The same applies to any revision or re-issue of the Code.
The Ethical Standards Commissioner (‘the Commissioner’) and the Standards Commission are two separate, independent statutory organisations.
The Commissioner is responsible for both public appointments and public standards. Where public standards are concerned, the Commissioner can investigate complaints about a councillor in respect of the Councillors’ Code. Likewise, the Commissioner can also investigate complaints about a member of a devolved public body who is alleged to have contravened the appropriate public body’s Code of Conduct.
The Standards Commission has responsibility for enforcing compliance with the Codes of Conduct and providing general guidance on their interpretation. Following initial investigation by the Commissioner, the Standards Commission adjudicates on cases of alleged contravention of the Codes of Conduct. Where a hearing is held, the Standards Commission has the power to impose sanctions.
Purpose of this consultation
The Scottish Government considers that many developments have occurred over the last ten years since the Code was last substantially reviewed. It is important to take account of such changes and to provide users with the opportunity to comment on the review. We want to make the Code easier to understand and take account of developments in our society such as the role of social media. We also aim to strengthen the Code to reinforce the importance of behaving in a respectful manner and to make it clear that bullying and harassment is completely unacceptable and should not be tolerated. We aim to produce a Code that is fit for purpose and will ensure the highest standards of conduct by our councillors to maintain and strengthen the trust of those they are elected to serve.
The revisions to the Code are intended to amend the Councillors’ Code of Conduct to bring it up to date and make it more user friendly. They include:
- A general rewrite changing the Code to the first person and adopting plain English wherever possible. This makes it easier to understand and encourages councillors to take ownership.
- A greater emphasis on addressing discrimination and unacceptable behaviour.
- Stronger rules around accepting gifts, both to protect councillors and to build confidence in their impartiality amongst the general public.
- A substantial rewrite of Section 5 establishing three clear and distinct stages to determine a declaration – Connection – Interest – Participation.
- Significant liberalisation of the guidance/rules around being a council-appointed representative on an outside body. The exceptions to this are for quasi-judicial matters and other situations where such appointments would create a clear conflict of interest
- Increased clarity on the rules around access and lobbying.
- A substantial rework of Section 7 in order to provide a more generic approach that can cover all types of applications and decisions, and not be so heavily focussed on planning matters.
As such, on 19 October 2020, we launched a consultation on possible revisions to the Councillors’ Code of Conduct, to seek views on current proposals for a revised Code. Whilst not part of this consultation, the Standards Commission intends to review and revise its supplementary guidance to the Code.
The consultation contained 10 questions in total. Respondents were asked whether they agreed with the need to review the Code. They were invited to comment on each individual section of the revised draft Code. Finally, they were asked to comment on the clarity of the revised Code, and given an opportunity to make any final comments on the proposed revisions to the Code.
Methodology and responses received
The consultation closed on 8 February 2021. Fifty-one (51) responses were received. This included two duplicate responses and one empty response, all of which were removed from the analysis leaving a total of 48 responses for analysis.
The remaining 48 responses were analysed using MS Excel. In addition to the analysis of the closed questions, a thematic analysis of the open-ended responses was conducted in order to identify the key themes emerging in relation to each question.
It is not possible to reflect every point of detail that respondents submitted in this consultation analysis, since detailed and specific comments were received on many different paragraphs within the Code. This analysis focuses mainly on points where multiple respondents made comments, and which thus emerged as themes of broader interest. However, all detailed submissions have been fully reviewed and considered by the teams responsible for the development of the revised Code.
Of the 48 responses which were analysed, 21(44%) were received from organisations and 27 (56%) from individuals. Individual respondents were not asked to give details of their relationship with the Code, although it is clear from the responses that at least some of them have first hand experience of the existing Code through their role as councillors.
Of the organisational responses, 13 (62% of the organisational responses and 27% of all the responses) came from councils, community councils or council political groupings provided information about their organisation. Seven (33% of organisational responses and 15% of all responses) organisational responses came from national bodies, including some tasked with representing councils, and others representing the interests of stakeholders who work extensively with councils.
It is important to note that the views of respondents to the consultation are not necessarily representative of those of the wider population of interest – including councillors, council staff and their representatives, and the electorate more broadly. This is because individuals and organisations who have a keen interest in any given topic, those who hold strong views, and those who have the capacity to respond are more likely to take part in a consultation than those who do not. As such, the responses to any consultation are a self-selecting group which may be biased in certain ways that we do not know. Reflecting this, the analysis is primarily qualitative in nature. We do not try to identify the percentage of respondents who held particular views but instead focus on understanding which topics were of particular interest or concern to the respondents, and the range and strength of views expressed in relation to those topics.